WASHINGTON -- It looks like it's going to be an ugly autumn in Washington.

No, the problem won't be with the fall foliage. It will be lurking in the halls of the Capitol, where lawmakers are preoccupied with the upcoming congressional elections, and where Republicans smell blood.

It's no secret that the Democratic party is expected to lose seats in both the House and Senate on Nov. 8. But how extensive those losses will be is still a matter of debate. While there is little chance that the Democrats could lose control of the House, Republicans say the Senate is another matter.

Haley Barbour. chairman of the Republican National Committee, said recently that his party has a shot at gaining the seven seats needed for a majority in the Senate. Of the 35 Senate races this year, Democrats are the incumbents in 22, and six of those senators are retiring. In the 13 Republican races, three incumbents have decided not to return.

Several Democratic senators face serious challenges, most notably Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pn. Wofford's upset victory over Republican Dick Thornburgh in a special election in 1991 energized Democrats and frightened Republicans, who feared voters were sending a message that. spelled the eventual defeat of President George. Bush -- and they were right.

But now it is the Democrats who are worried. One former Hill starlet says the party's somber mood these days reminds him of the Republicans' sense of impending doom in the fall of 1986. That year, Democrats took control of the Senate in the November elections.

With those political problems uppermost in their minds, lawmakers from both parties returned from summer recess last week to an atmosphere that some Capitol Hill watchers said is the most hostile and politically charged in memory. That environment is sharply hindering efforts at passing major bills.

Some Republican lawmakers have been quite candid about their strategy: Don't let anything be passed that might help the Democrats at the voting booth. The biggest victim of that strategy has been the health care reform effort, which is now in ruins.

House and Senate leaders are still trying to come up with a bill, but now they have in mind a scattered set of insurance reforms, not the grand new health care system President Clinton wanted.

Another major bill waiting for final approval by Congress is the housing reauthorization measure. The legislation would renew a number of federal housing programs scheduled to expire Sept. 30, including the HOME program, the Community Development Block Grant program, and the Section 8 rental assistance program.

The bill has already been victimized by political infighting. Republicans blocked its passage in the Senate during August, holding up that and numerous other measures to protest Democratic maneuvers on the health care reform bill.

Now housing proponents say the reauthorization bill needs Senate action this week to guarantee enough time for House and Senate conferees to work out differences in their respective versions before Congress adjourns for the year. They know that the exodus will begin as close to schedule as possible.

This year, adjournment is tentatively set for Oct. 7. Normally, Congress remains at least a week or two beyond its adjournment date to clean up unfinished business. But nervous incumbents are already clamoring to get back home so they can campaign; some are even agitating that Congress adjourn before the 7th.

Given the negative environment in which legislators are operating this fall, it may be just as well if they beat a hasty exit next month. Autumn is normally considered the silly season around the capital. This year. it will also be ugly.

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