The Senate's 'dark and stormy night'

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It was a dark and stormy night. Outside the Capitol, thunder echoed through a driving rain. Lightning reflected off the gleaming tiles of the US Senate. Inside, the atmosphere was equally Edgar Allen Poe - and about to get more so.

The tourists and lobbyists were long gone, and the place

was down to bare essentials: senators and their votes. It had been an exhausting day - nearly 12 hours of voting on a tax cut with 12 zeros, the biggest in a generation.

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If votes are a way to get the pulse of the place, things

were going badly for Democrats. The tax cut was already being counted as a big win for President Bush. Republicans were planning to celebrate it at a big fundraiser later that night.

Then the whispering began.

Hushed conversations in the corridors and cloakrooms turned from tax cuts to an even more startling change: the prospect that control of the Senate might flip to the Democrats. The rumor revolved around the machinations of an iconoclastic senator from Vermont, but it was really another act in Washington's latest theatrical installment of madcap democracy.

The cliche in the Senate has always been

that every person counts. Now one person doesn't only count, but can upset the balance of power in a capital city that normally runs by prescribed rules and rituals.

It started with an overheard conversation. Then, a CNN report, a hastily scheduled meeting with the president, and denials that

did not come. Slowly, the little signals that count for evidence in Washington were mounting that Vermont Sen. James Jeffords might bolt the Republican Party.

The 50-50 Senate would tip to the Democrats. There would be a reorganization: Gavels would change. Committee ratios would change. And it's a new world in the US Senate.

Reporters waited by doors, along corridors, near elevators - anywhere they could catch key senators on their way to and from votes. The prize was Senator Jeffords, who managed to find a new way in and out of the Senate for every vote.

What do you know? What have you heard? Will he do it? Senate tradition has it that senators not repeat conversations with their colleagues. But some came close.

"I've known him all my political life, and I hope and expect he will stay a Republican," said Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma.

Others covered the tension with jokes: "Hey Arlen, am I chairman of Judiciary?" quipped Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware to his colleague from Pennsylvania.

But the object of all the rumors was not talking. He moved quickly through the halls. A Yankee sphinx, he looked pained by all the interest.

His votes didn't signal his next move, either: Over the past two days, he had voted 17 times with Republicans, and 11 times with Democrats, with six no-shows.

Failing any hard evidence, speculation turned to reading the body language on the floor: Which side looked happier?

By the end of the night, the Democrats were winning the "happy" contest. Some senators began speculating about what they would do with their gavels.

Senator Biden began beaming. "I didn't dare believe this could happen. There's an ascending sense of expectancy in there."

He mused aloud about plans for how the world would change if he had the Foreign Relations gavel: "There would be fundamental changes.... I'd have hearings on who is in charge [of the administration's foreign policy].... What is their China Policy? Why aren't they in Korea? Now, you can't get to these folks and ask direct questions. I'd call them up, and if they didn't come up with answers, they've got a problem."

Others, sensing the fragility of the times, were not so sure.

"You can't even imagine the pressure on Jeffords not to change. Or the pressure on [Georgia Sen. Zell] Miller to change the other way," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, ranking member on the Budget Committee. If there is a change in leadership, he'd like to be appointed to the conference committee to work out the final shape of this tax bill - and to bring with him the 177 charts his office produced for this debate.

Republicans looked a little stunned.

"There is a real deep thud in your stomach," said GOP Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. "You know God is sovereign, but you can't help saying, 'What does it all mean?' "

Finally, the votes for the night were over. The rumors were tucked away for the morning briefings. Outside, the storm ended. The sky began to clear - and a sense of change was in the air.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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