A Senate still in the balance

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After all the dust stirred up by Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords abandoning the Republican Party and thereby putting Democrats in control of the Senate for the first time since 1994, what effect will his decision have on policymaking in Washington?

Not all that much.

Mr. Jeffords's action puts more short-term pressure on the new Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle to deviate from the wishes of his party's core constituencies as much as it does on President Bush to be less mindful to his.

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In philosophy as well as tone, the Democratic Senate that Mr. Daschle will lead much resembles the one voters turned out six years ago. Nearly all committee chairmen will be decidedly more liberal, not only compared with Republicans they replace, but with Daschle himself.

Of the expected lineup - Sens. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts (Health and Labor); Patrick Leahy of Vermont (Judiciary); Paul Sarbanes of Maryland (Banking); Carl Levin of Michigan (Agriculture); Chris Dodd of Connecticut (Rules); Tom Harkin of Iowa (Agriculture); Robert Byrd of West Virginia (Appropriations); Fritz Hollings of South Carolina (Commerce); Joseph Biden of Delaware (Foreign Relations); Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico (Energy and Natural Resources); Kent Conrad of North Dakota (Budget); John Kerry of Massachusetts (Small Business); Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut (Government Affairs); Max Baucus of Montana (Finance); and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia (Veterans Affairs) - only Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Bingaman could be accurately described as "new Democrats." (Mr. Bachus, up for reelection next year, has supported Mr. Bush's tax cuts.)

As a group and as individuals, all the others have been more hostile to tax cuts, friendlier to heavy regulations, and opposed to increased defense expenditures. They more resemble the kind of Democrats that Bill Clinton displaced as he became the second Democratic president elected since Lyndon Johnson and only the first reelected since Franklin Roosevelt.

If Daschle articulates the sentiments of these chairmen - or his caucus - he risks casting his party outside the national "mainstream." That would yield the center to Bush. Another risk inherent in that strategy is the likelihood that one of the 12 Democrats who supported Bush's budget will rebel. It will only take a switch of one senator to hand power back to the Republicans. If Daschle tries to blur the lines, those on his far left may abandon him. That would weaken the Democrats' ability to push an agenda.

As the most visible and, now, most powerful Democrat, Daschle joins the ranks of potential presidential hopefuls. That should bring competition from at least five other Democratic Senators who fancy themselves as their party's next standard-bearer - in addition to his other challenges.

While adjusting his strategy and outreach efforts slightly, Bush can be expected to argue that it is he who is more in sync with public opinion when it comes to tax cuts, military preparedness, partial privatization of Social Security, and education. The easy passage of his budget plan - along with 12 Democratic senators voting for his tax cuts - strengthens his case. And he will still enjoy support from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Its members will have a say both on the floor and in critical bicameral negotiations.

Daschle, meanwhile, will be facing a second set of problems. As his predecessor, soon-to-be former majority leader Trent Lott discovered, unlike the House of Representatives, Senate rules allow the minority party and individual senators ample opportunities to thwart the will of the majority of the chamber. Sixty votes are needed to curtail filibusters. (Jefford's action leaves 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and 1 independent.)

Even in the one area where majority control conveys increased power, that of control of the floor, Democrats may have a harder time than expected. History and tradition holds that the entire Senate considers Supreme Court nominees. With the president in command of the "bully pulpit," public pressure and expectations may compel the most reluctant of majorities to grant "up" or "down" votes on other nominees and measures.

Then there is the matter of Bush's veto. In the unlikely event the president's ranks in the House fail to hold, neither Daschle nor his House counterpart, minority leader Dick Gephardt, are likely to muster the two-thirds necessary to override him. And, Vice President Cheney will still be on hand in the Senate to break ties in Bush's favor.

Finally, Daschle will have to contend with the circumstances surrounding Jeffords's defection. The public dangling of a major committee chairmanship before him undercuts the justification the senator supplied for his action: principle. By accepting a change in party control of the Senate, without a vote from the people (whether through special election in Vermont or in upcoming off-year special elections in 2002), Daschle and his colleagues leave themselves open to charges that they took power through a backroom deal or "coup." That leaves their adherents in less of a position to question the "legitimacy" of Bush's election.

When all is said and done, politics in the nation's capital will proceed much as before.

Alvin S. Felzenberg directs the Mandate for Leadership Program at the Heritage Foundation. He writes and lectures on the presidency and other American political institutions.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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