The Senate's Brand-New Day

Waves from Vermont Sen. James Jeffords's bolt from the GOP begin to be felt officially today, as the Democratic Party assumes control of the US Senate, albeit by just one vote.

Mr. Jeffords's desk was literally unbolted from the Republican side and moved over to the Democratic side of the aisle this week. Though Jeffords calls himself an independent, he says he'll caucus with the Democrats.

Now the bipartisanship opportunity again presents itself. It's up to the Democrats to show the Republicans, and themselves, that the kind of thoughtful, spirited debate the country saw in the Senate when it addressed campaign finance reform can be the order of the day on other issues as well. The Democrats have an opportunity to set a tone in the Senate chamber that they've said they wanted all along.

President Bush, who himself loses no opportunity to talk about changing the tone in Washington, can encourage this by making appearances on Capitol Hill, where and when appropriate. Mr. Bush and new senate majority leader Tom Daschle are reportedly meeting for dinner this week, which is a hopeful sign.

Moderate Democrats and Republicans will surely wield some renewed influence as the Democrat-controlled Senate takes up such issues as a patients' bill of rights and raising the minimum wage. But Democrats would be wise to share the issues agenda, allowing Republicans an equal piece of the legislative pie. The Senate, after all, remains closely divided. The leadership skills of Mr. Daschle, along with those of others, will be put to the test right away, as senators get down to the business of reorganizing committees and figuring out how to handle Bush's judicial nominees.

Republicans are maintaining that the Senate is essentially still tied, and Democrats are holding to a recent agreement that gives them a one-seat majority on all committees. The Democratic position seems fair, given the new landscape, and the fact that this arrangement has already been signed off on by Republicans. For any bill to make it to the Senate floor for debate requires 60 votes anyway.

The Senate's new leadership will do well to avoid the appearance of power-grabbing or blocking the legislative process out of partisan motives. Senators should work to prove to Americans that transparency and honesty can be part of good politics.

That would be a terrific fresh start, and the opportunity should be seized for the good of the country, not solely for political gain. The last thing voters want is gridlock caused by obscure political maneuvering minus the benefit of rigorous, open debate.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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