Anticipated Drama Fizzles Into Business as Usual

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They had to hustle the visitors into the gallery Wednesday because, for once, the Senate was going to start on time--11 a.m. sharp.

Pam Smith, a letter carrier's wife from Tampa, Fla., couldn't wait to get inside. "I want to see how the senators treat each other when it starts. I'm hopin' for a little action."

But when the historic power shift finally came and the Democrats took the reins of the Senate for the first time since 1995, it was not unlike the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. The buildup tells you something big is about to happen, but once the clock stops bonging, you look around and everything is pretty much the same as it was before.

"There were more [Senate] pages in there than there were senators," one spectator grumbled after standing in line a long time to witness a mid-session power transfer that was as pacific as it was unprecedented.

Indeed, the changeover was a study in good grace by Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi and Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota. They shook hands heartily, never betraying that one craved and the other relished the clout exchanged this muggy Washington day.

Everyone searched for some symbol of the moment. Photographers snapped raptly while workers removed the placard that said "Assistant Majority Leader" and replaced it with one that said "Assistant Republican Leader" over the office door of Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma.

Speech-makers groped for rhetoric that soared. Lott lapsed into a strange and tortured version of the myth of Atlas and Hercules trading the weight of the Earth on each other's shoulders.

"At one point Atlas tricked Hercules and dumped that burden off on Hercules. But later on another trick was employed and Atlas wound up with this weight back on him. . . . Now what is the moral of that story?" Lott asked.

Few wondered.

Daschle made a noble call for bipartisanship by comparing the Senate to a hi-fi:

"Sometimes it's not a very stereophonic sound. Sometimes there's too much sound from the right or too much from the left. But it's a sound that, in my view, is a beautiful noise."

The noise of late, of course, was the static over the decision by Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont to switch from Republican to independent, throwing control of what had been a 50-50 Senate to the Democrats.

But like many of his colleagues, Jeffords wasn't there to soak up the ramifications of his decision or sample the new view from his desk, which was unbolted by workers at 8 a.m. and moved over with the Democrats. (Other desks were shifted around to mask the unsightly gap on the GOP side.)

Swarmed by reporters all week, Jeffords watched from his office. "He didn't want to detract from the event," press secretary Erik Smulson said, adding that the senator regarded the moment as "bittersweet."

Others also had their reasons for missing the big event, Lott's call for full attendance in a show of good faith notwithstanding.

Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) took some 4-H kids on a tour of the Capitol. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was attending a defense appropriation subcommittee hearing.

As usual, the real action was happening off the floor anyway. Real estate is king in Congress, and fights brewed all week over who might bounce whom out of coveted digs.

Nickles, whose elegant office is steps from the Senate floor, could be evicted any day by the new assistant majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, whose office is down a long serpentine corridor near the first aid station.

Incoming Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) wasted no time swiping luxurious suites from the panel's former head, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

All freshman senators were temporarily stripped of their committee assignments because of a technicality. But they were allowed to sit in as "welcomed guests" until they are formally reassigned to exactly the same committees they were on in the first place.

While everyone was on his or her best behavior during Wednesday's formal switch-over, it may be just a matter of time before true feelings surface.

One of the Capitol police officers said he would be watching closely this week to see how Republicans treat their defecting colleague.

"I don't think anyone's going to punch Sen. Jeffords in the face, but I think they'd like to," the officer said, asking not to be named, lest he be fired. "Other than that, it's business as usual."

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Times staff writers Janet Hook and Greg Miller contributed to this story.

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