As Senate shifts, so does agenda

The Jeffords switch from the GOP means the Democrats will compete with Bush on much more equal terms.

The Democrats' sudden rise to power in the US Senate means at least this: There's a new agenda in town, and it doesn't include drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

A second round of tax cuts? That's on the incoming Senate leadership's "out" list. An increase in the minimum wage? That's "in."

And Sen. Edward Kennedy, Democrat, of Massachusetts? That's "Chairman Kennedy" to you, mister.

By declaring that he will switch his party registration, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont has given the Democratic Party the ability to compete with GOP President George W. Bush on much more equal terms. The move may reflect one of the most profound shifts in influence in the US government that has ever taken place without an election. But influence does not automatically equate to legislative change. As majority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota will face the same situation that bedeviled his GOP predecessor, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi: With such a slim majority, gridlock is just a defector away.

Senate Democrats "have to be very careful. One senator can still bring everything to a halt," says Charles Jones, political science professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin.

Senator Jeffords yesterday made his bolt from the Republican Party official. Speaking at a news conference in Vermont, he declared himself an independent. He said his moderate stances on such issues as abortion, education, and the environment had made it increasingly difficult for him to deal with Mr. Bush and other party leaders.

Jeffords said he had promised Bush he would not make his change effective until after the Senate had acted on the tax cut. But after the tax measure clears, "control of the Senate will change," said Jeffords.

Instant majority leader

After the 2000 election left the Senate split 50-50, Senate leaders struck a powersharing deal that took the possibility of a defection such as this into account. The deal recognized that the GOP controlled the chamber by sole virtue of Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote. If a GOP senator left the party, under the accord, Senator Daschle would instantly become majority leader.

Unlike the House, the Senate does not vote for its leader as a body. The Senate parliamentarian simply designates as chamber chief the leader of the party with the most senators. Similarly, ranking Democrats on committees instantly become chairmen.

The switch means much more than just different people wielding gavels. The majority leader controls the flow and timing of legislative votes. Committee chairs decide what bills their panels will consider, and what sort of hearings they will hold.

Patient's-rights legislation could well be one of the first major initiatives affected by the switch, say analysts. Democrats are likely to move ahead with their version of a bill that purports to protect patients in health maintenance organizations from excessive cost-cutting zeal. Among other things, it would allow patients much greater leeway to sue their HMOs than would similar White House-backed legislation.

Democrats are also likely to push a prescription-drug plan that would affect more than just the elderly poor, as per Bush-backed legislation.

An increase in the minimum wage is now more likely to reach the Senate floor - and it probably won't include new tax breaks for businesses, as the GOP leadership had planned.

The administration's plan to partly privatize Social Security is now likely to receive less favorable Senate treatment - as will most of the elements of Bush's just-released energy plan that call for increased fossil-fuel and nuclear-energy production.

Democrats have already said that a Judiciary Committee chaired by a member of their party (likely Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont) will not consider judicial nominees until they have been evaluated by the American Bar Association - a vetting process that Bush had halted. And a Democratic majority means that Bush nominees for the US Supreme Court will receive much more intense scrutiny than they would have otherwise.

Bush's silver lining

All this said, the 100 senators who make up the chamber are still the same people. Control of process is one thing. Control of a final vote is another.

And in political terms, there could be a silver lining for the White House in the change. If anything goes wrong in coming months - the economy stumbles, say, or gasoline prices soar - they can at least try to blame it on the Democrats in the Senate.

"Bush and the Republicans have an automatic escape hatch," says Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Staff writer Dante Chinni contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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