By now, most Americans assume that Republicans control the Senate. The party has 51 senators, two more than the Democrats, after last fall's midterm elections. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is recognized as majority leader and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as minority leader.
But by one important measure, Republicans are not yet in charge.
On Tuesday, one week into the new Congress, Democrats still held all the Senate committee gavels. Republicans were still itching to take over the 20 Senate committees and dozens of subcommittees that do much of Washington's daily work.
At issue is an "organizing resolution" required at the beginning of every Congress to name committee leaders and members. Republicans, citing precedent, are arguing for a 2-to-1 edge in funding and the lion's share of office space. Democrats are seeking a near-even split, modeled after an arrangement in the previous Congress when the Senate began in a 50-50 tie, led by Republicans, and then fell to Democratic control when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont quit the GOP.
Because of the panel paralysis, a major Republican-drafted spending bill was delayed. So were Capitol Hill appearances by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Tom Ridge, President Bush's nominee for Homeland Security secretary.
Originally scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Ridge was bumped to Friday after Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) agreed to open the confirmation hearing and then hand the gavel to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Another confirmation hearing, for Treasury Secretary-designate John W. Snow, was tentatively scheduled for Jan. 28 before the Finance Committee.
The impasse underscores the power Democrats have, through filibusters and other parliamentary devices, to slow the Republican agenda. It takes 60 votes in the Senate to force action on most major matters -- a margin that neither party can claim.
The Democrats have, in fact, threatened to filibuster a Republican proposal to get the Senate moving.
"You are usurping the rights of the people of this country who elected the majority," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, scolded Democrats on the Senate floor.
Other Republicans denounced the Democratic posture as "sandbox silliness" and "an attempted coup."
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the assistant Democratic leader, said his party was "dug in" and would insist on a fair division of committee money and office space as a condition for allowing the panels to organize under the Republicans. "We are not going to bend," Reid said.
The rights granted to the minority sets the Senate apart in the U.S. government. Under the Constitution, power changes hands in the executive branch the minute a new president takes office. An elected majority can begin running the House a few hours after a new Congress convenes. And in the Supreme Court, a one-vote majority can issue a ruling at any time.
But in the Senate, the majority usually has to cut deals with the minority. Sometimes even one senator can bring the chamber to a halt.
Frist told reporters the dispute could force the Senate to scrap a recess scheduled for next week. "The Senate business has basically stopped," he said. But late Tuesday, he said that the two sides were close to a deal.