GOP Prepares to Drop Senate Reins

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Republicans prepared to relinquish control of the Senate today, ending their six-year stint in the majority with a poignant juxtaposition of legislative triumph and political defeat.

The surrender of majority control to Democrats will occur quietly, without pomp, at the end of the day's legislative session. And it will come in the wake of Monday's dispatch to the White House of the final version of the tax cut bill that stands as a landmark achievement for President Bush and GOP congressional leaders.

Before the transfer of power, Republicans will return to business as usual on the Senate floor, calling up an education bill that is another of Bush's priorities. But in private meeting rooms, GOP leaders will be drafting the terms of their surrender to Democrats.

The changeover is the result of the decision by Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont to leave the Republican Party and become an independent. That will tip the balance of party power from 50-50, with Republicans in control by virtue of Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote, to a Democratic-dominated breakdown of 50-49-1.

Across Capitol Hill, the day will be marked by signs of both continuity and tumult. The education bill is expected to clear the Senate by early next week--underscoring that despite the change in party control, the same 100 senators remain in the chamber and voting patterns will likely continue as before.

And Republicans on Thursday will celebrate the fruits of their short-lived dominance of the Senate, House and White House when Bush signs the tax cut legislation. (Although the bill cleared Congress more than a week ago, it was not sent to the White House for the president's signature until Monday.)

Meanwhile, there will be a dramatic turnover in the Senate leadership that will put Bush at a disadvantage for the rest of the year. The most visible change will come Wednesday, when Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota--the Senate's top Democrat--first is recognized on the floor as the new Senate Majority Leader, wresting the post from Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

In a sign of Bush's sensitivity to the changing political dynamics, he is expected to meet this week with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a maverick who has been wooed as a possible convert to the Democratic Party. He also is scheduled to meet with Daschle on Thursday. And Jeffords, despite his defection, has been invited to a White House meeting today of lawmakers focused on the education issue.

A key question that remains is whether Republicans end their control of the Senate on a confrontational or conciliatory note. Some Democrats warn it will be the former if Republicans force a vote today on a pending amendment to the education bill that is popular with the GOP's conservative base. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), would cut off federal aid to schools that deny access to their facilities to Boy Scout troops because of the group's policy of banning homosexual members.

As of Monday night, it was unclear whether a vote on the amendment would be part of today's session.

Behind the scenes, Republicans will be sorting out the demands they plan to make of Democrats in talks over how the Senate should be reorganized to reflect the change in control. Lott has appointed five senior GOP senators to handle the negotiations: Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, Phil Gramm of Texas, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

The five are scheduled to meet with Lott this morning to plot strategy, and then to brief the rest of their colleagues during a midday policy lunch before opening negotiations with Daschle.

Leaders from both parties agree that Democrats deserve one-seat majorities on committees. But Republicans are hoping to wring some concessions and are threatening to tie up the Senate unless their demands are met.

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