Historic Yet Calm Switch in the Senate

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ending the six-year Republican monopoly on power in Congress, Democrats took charge of the Senate on Wednesday in a remarkably smooth transition that belied the bumpy road ahead as they mount a more aggressive opposition to President Bush.

Lawmakers of both parties were acutely aware that Democrats' new majority is as fragile as that the GOP enjoyed just two weeks ago--and their mandate from the voters as uncertain as Bush's after the narrowly decided presidential election.

"The tenuous nature of our majorities require that we act accordingly," said Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who was recognized as the Senate's new majority leader for the first time as Wednesday's legislative session began. "We have to find common ground."

The day was a tableau of soothing continuity and dramatic change. The same 100 senators came to the floor to vote on amendments to the same education bill that has been debated for weeks. But Democrats made clear that once the education bill is done, the White House will lose its stranglehold on the Senate's agenda. Among the changes in the wings:

* The next big issue before the chamber will be health legislation to give patients more power in dealing with managed care programs--not, as the Republicans had planned, measures to cope with the energy crisis.

* Prospects for another round of tax reductions are dimmer, despite the hopes of business lobbyists whose pet tax breaks were largely excluded from the tax cut bill Bush is due to sign today.

* Education funding levels in the bill Bush is pushing will likely wind up higher because Democrats will have more leverage in negotiations over the legislation's final terms.

* Democrats plan greater scrutiny of Bush's nominees for judgeships and executive branch posts. But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) was at pains to say that would not mean a slowdown in the process. He said at his first committee hearing Wednesday that he intends to begin hearings on judicial nominations soon.

These were among the ripple effects of the decision by Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont to leave the Republican Party and become an independent. That tipped the Senate's party breakdown from 50-50--with Republicans in control by virtue of Vice President Dick Cheney's tiebreaking vote--to a slim Democratic edge of 50-49-1. The transfer of power was unprecedented; never before has control of the chamber changed midterm.

GOP's Six-Year Reign Ends Abruptly

For Republicans, it marked an abrupt and dispiriting end to majority status in both the House and Senate that began after the 1994 election. Prodded initially by controversial House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the party pressed a controversial agenda, known as the "contract with America," that included welfare reform, the balanced-budget act and tax cuts. During much of 1998 and into 1999, GOP lawmakers led the politically explosive drive to impeach President Clinton. Over the years, their margin of control in both chambers got steadily smaller--and now, in the Senate, has vanished.

The baton was passed in a scene typical of the tradition-bound Senate: a low-key, dignified half-hour ritual of speeches and procedural resolutions to effect the transfer, punctuated with bipartisan backslapping and handshaking. There was no elaborate pageantry; Daschle became majority leader simply by being recognized as such by the presiding officer.

Many senators were absent from the floor, including Jeffords; one of his aides said the lawmaker "didn't want to be a distraction."

Daschle, in his first remarks from the floor as majority leader, struck a conciliatory note.

"At a time when Americans are evenly divided about their choice of leaders, they are united in their demand for action. Polarized positions are an indulgence, an indulgence that the Senate cannot afford and our nation will not tolerate."

But he also made clear he expected the parties to continue to clash over their fundamental differences, saying, "Republicans and Democrats come to this floor with different philosophies, different agendas."

Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was supplanted by Daschle as majority leader, expressed hope that Republicans will soon win back control of the chamber and hailed the party's accomplishments during its reign.

"I do think we have made a difference in the country over the past six years," Lott said. He also argued that the GOP will still wield significant power in the Senate, where a minority of 41 can stall most legislation with a filibuster.

"I don't think a lot will change," Lott said.

Democrats Face Risks as Well as Chances

The unemotional ritual tended to obscure the fact that the balance of power in Washington had been upended and that both political parties were in turmoil as a result.

For Democrats, their newly acquired power affords both opportunities and risks. They have vastly more power to spotlight their agenda and their critique of Bush policies. But with their power comes responsibility, and they risk being seen as obstructionists if they do nothing but block popular parts of the White House agenda.

"You're judged by a higher standard--what you accomplish, not what you stop," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.).

Republicans already are pushing to portray Daschle and other Senate Democratic leaders as liberal activists out of touch with the electoral mainstream. The Republican National Committee on Wednesday issued a news release titled "Leftward Lurch: An Overview of the Liberal Democrats," about those who have become committee chairmen.

Jeffords' defection, meanwhile, plunged many Republicans into a period of introspection about the party's direction.

Over the weekend, Lott offered defiant conservative rhetoric in discussing the party's changed status, but most other Republicans this week struck a more conciliatory tone. Lott's lieutenants were threatening a GOP filibuster to wring concessions from Democrats on the reorganization of Senate committees, but moderates and other Republicans quickly threw cold water on that idea.

"Welcome to the middle," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said Wednesday. "That's where it's all going to happen."

For members of both parties, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were tempered by the realization that it all could change again before the 2002 election with another death, departure, party switch or other circumstance.

That possibility was underscored Wednesday when Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) asked for a special counsel to take over a federal investigation into his financial dealings. Torricelli said he feared the Bush Justice Department would be influenced by political considerations.

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Times staff writers Faye Fiore and Jonathan Peterson contributed to this story.

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