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KWAME HOLMAN: Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords was the focus of the media’s attention this afternoon as he left the capitol to pay a visit to President Bush at the White House. Jeffords officially leaves the ranks of the Republican Party at the stroke of midnight and becomes an independent. That move will tip the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats. The power shift wasn’t the reason Jeffords was called to the White House. He simply went as one of nine Senators invited to discuss progress on the President’s education reform bill. Jeffords’ mere presence at the meeting, however, did prompt some laughter.
SPOKESMAN: Senator Jeffords is leaving the party saying that the could no longer… Because of the conservative bent of the party, could not longer work with as well with you and other –
SPOKESMAN: Don’t make the guy feel bad in front of…. ( Laughter )
SPOKESMAN: I get paid good money for it, sir.
SPOKESMAN: I see.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Jeffords’ move means a historic shakeup for the Senate. The remaining 50 Democrat and 49 Republicans suddenly will have their roles reversed.
SEN. HARRY REID, (D) Nevada: i certainly don’t feel giddy. I feel real sense of responsibility that the American people want to produce.
REPORTER: Is it more fun in the minority?
SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON, (R) Arkansas: Well, it’s less worrisome. I wouldn’t say it’s more fun. We’d rather be in the majority.
KWAME HOLMAN: And for the hundreds of Senate staff workers who keep their boss on issue, worlds have been turned upside down as well.
MARK BUSE: It will sink in once we actually start doing the work of the minority. I think right now, people are still a little shocked.
KWAME HOLMAN: Before Jeffords’ announcement two weeks ago, Mark Buse went about his job as the Republican staff director for the Senate Commerce Committee, the majority staff director.
MARK BUSE: We were working on privacy legislation, airline legislation, telecommunications, deregulation. Those are all going to be radically changed now. I mean, our agenda will not take place the way we planned it in the past. Now, we will have to see what they want to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: They, of course, are the Democrats. And tomorrow they will become the majority party with control over the legislative agenda on the Senate floor and in all 20 committees.
MARK BUSE: I certainly think that this committee, the Commerce Committee, will do different… Will take different actions than it would have under a McCain chairmanship, when Mr. Hollings takes over.
KWAME HOLMAN: South Carolina Democrat Ernest Fritz Hollings will assume the Commerce Committee chairmanship he held for six years before Republicans took majority power in 1995. Arizona’s John McCain, chairman for the past two-and-a-half years, becomes the committee’s ranking Republican.
MARK BUSE: They have an excellent relationship, and they respect each other immensely. And therefore, it will make our work all that much easier here in the transition.
KWAME HOLMAN: A smooth transition also is predicted for the Finance Committee, where iowa’s Charles Grassley will pass his chairmanship to Montana’s Max Baucus. During the recent Senate debate on the tax cut bill, the two cosponsors, Grassley and Baucus stood together and successfully fought off attempts by Senators from both parties to rewrite the legislation.
SEN. MAX BAUCUS: I worked with Senator Grassley, chairman of the committee, to produce a Finance Committee bill which has provisions that are much better from the Democrats’ perspective than otherwise we’d be faced with on the floor.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: I hope that we do, in fact, look upon the Senate being very closely divided for a long period of time, and whoever is in control, it’s very important that we continue this bipartisanship that it takes to get things done in the United States Senate.
KWAME HOLMAN: And most meetings of the Senate Judiciary Committee have been lightened by some good-natured jabs exchanged between Utah Republican Orrin Hatch and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Orrin and I have been friends for 25 years. No, I mean people don’t seem to realize. They think I’m joking about this; I’m not Orrin Hat is one of the best friends I have in the Senate. I’ve served here now with 283 Senators, 284, something like that, since I first got elected. Orrin is one of my best friends.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, it’s probably safe to say most Senators don’t cast votes based on their friendships. The issues before them usually are decided by political and ideological concerns. And Democrats now expect to hold the upper hand in dictating which issues get addressed. And so Carl Levin, the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Joseph Biden, incoming chairman on foreign relations, and Robert Byrd, once again chairman on Appropriations, all are free to pursue agendas much different from what their Republican counterparts would have.
SPOKESMAN: I’m going to give you my version of what’s the best thing happened.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Democratic control will extend beyond the chairmanship. Since January, committees have operated with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats reflecting the chamber’s 50-50 split. But now, with a one-seat advantage in the Senate, Democrats will hold a one-seat advantage on each committee as well.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Of course, the one vote majority, or being in the majority regardless of how many votes one has, allows you two very important prerogatives. The first is the committee agenda, what is taken up in committees, what kind of hearings, what kind of votes, what kind of bills. Of course, the schedule of the Senate is determined by the majority in consultation– i emphasize that– in consultation with the minority. I hope to consult all along with our Republican colleagues and especially the Republican leader.
KWAME HOLMAN: Incoming Majority Leader Tom Daschle has been meeting in recent days with Senator Lott and other Republican leaders trying to work out the transfer of power. But this afternoon, Lott again said he wanted assurance that the Democrats wouldn’t use their new powers to block the President’s judicial nominees.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Some, you know, clarification to what these comments were that were made about how this is the end of conservative judges and they’re going to have a litmus test, that needs to at least be aired. I think that after a discussion, maybe we’ll get some understanding of how we can go forward and get these nominations considered and hopefully voted on. That is a fair ground for discussion, you know, and it will be a part of what is talked about later on today and tomorrow.
KWAME HOLMAN: Daschle and Lott crossed paths this afternoon and greeted each other warmly. However, early this evening, there were reports that negotiations over the judicial nominations had stalled. Without an agreement, republicans threatened to filibuster the resolution reorganizing the committees in favor of the Democrats. That could prevent any legislation from moving through Senate committees.