WASHINGTON -- More than the fate of candidates is at stake Tuesday.
In determining which party controls the House and Senate, voters are shaping the coming battles over taxes, Social Security, jobs, drugs and -- well into the future -- the makeup of courts that could rule on a long list of issues from abortion to welfare.
Those struggles will take place against the backdrop of a shaky economy that makes difficult choices at the best of times harder still, intensifying the public's needs and driving up the expense of addressing them.
Local concerns motivated most campaigns. Transcendent issues, when taken up, were raised in almost cartoonish fashion at times -- Democrats slamming the "risky scheme" of their opponents on Social Security; Republicans literally running a cartoon that depicted a tax-grabbing Democratic boogieman.
But Tuesday's choices inevitably will set a course on those issues and more.
To be determined: not only whether one party's plans prevail over the other's, but how much gets done at all in the two years before a presidential election, a time ripe for brinkmanship and distraction.
Some issues are more likely than others to rise or fall based on which party controls the Senate and House. Among them:
The idea held broad appeal when the stock market was high -- let people take some of the money that now goes into the Social Security system and put it into personal retirement accounts instead. Higher returns would ensure a more comfortable retirement for more people, the reasoning goes. Most Democrats oppose any diversion of money from Social Security.
The sinking value of so many retirement funds has set back the initiative, a top plank in President Bush's 2000 platform.
Supporters argue that investment safeguards can protect against deep losses in unpredictable times and still provide a better return than most people get from Social Security. Even so, a variety of Republicans are tentative about advancing the idea while the stock market is so erratic. If Bush has a hope of making much progress on the plan in what's left of his term, he can probably do so only if his party controls both houses of Congress.
Last year's $1.3 trillion package of tax cuts was to expire in a decade; the two parties are wrestling with each other over Bush's call to make the reductions permanent. Democratic leaders are pitching other ideas to stimulate the economy, including an extension of unemployment benefits, an increase in the minimum wage and narrower business tax cuts.
Democratic Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, in line to be speaker if the House falls into his party's hands, proposes raising the minimum wage to $6.65 an hour by January 2004 from $5.15 now. Senate Democrats favor a similar raise. Bush might go along with a small raise if he gets something important in return; generally, he favors an increase only if individual states are allowed to opt out of it.
Both parties want prescription drug coverage for the elderly, filling a hole in Medicare, which does not pay for most drugs. At issue is how to do it -- through Medicare itself, or run by a private company -- and how comprehensive the benefits should be. Drug costs are rising, and about one-third of Medicare recipients do not have their own coverage.
The issue, which was featured heavily in the 2000 elections, consumed weeks of debate in Congress but was not resolved.
The fight over Bush's picks for federal courts illustrates how something that is not supposed to matter -- the perceived ideology and policy leanings of judges -- can matter very much.
Seventeen U.S. District Court nominees are waiting for Senate votes, as well as one appeals court candidate. The Senate has confirmed 80 and blocked several since Bush took office.
Presidents don't admit to making judicial nominations based on ideology; Bush says Democrats are standing in the way of a "sound judiciary." Democrats say Bush has put forward nominees too far to the right, ones who would strip back abortion rights, civil rights and more.
The debate is bound to grow if a Supreme Court vacancy opens. The court is closely divided on abortion, and the balance could swing depending on who leaves and who is put forward.