Apart from a quirky two-week period back in January, today will be the first time the Democrats gain control of the U.S. Senate in more than six years. Thanks to the defection of Sen. James M. Jeffords, the transfer of power today represents the first time in American history that the party controlling the Senate has changed other than through an election. The immediate effect is that Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota will replace Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi as Senate majority leader. What happens after that is open to negotiation.
So, it´s fair to ask: Which Tom Daschle will show up today? Will it be the obstructionist Tom Daschle who, appearing on NBC´s “Meet the Press” May 27, unilaterally declared as politically dead major items of President George W. Bush´s agenda? Will it be the soft-spoken, but tough-as-nails Tom Daschle who nixed Democratic Sen. Joe Biden´s humane attempt to arrange for the exhausted 98-year-old Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond to go home on the night of marathon tax cut votes? Will it be the Tom Daschle who, for all practical purposes, declared Bush judicial nominations to be terminal, suggesting that the Senate Judiciary Committee would routinely fail to report those nominations to the floor for debate and a vote in the full Senate? Or will it be the Tom Daschle who told USA Today in a recent interview, “We have to reach out and try to be as inclusive as possible.”
It´s also worth asking: Which Trent Lott will show up today? Will it be the Trent Lott who made extraordinary accommodations to Mr. Daschle´s demands in January for a power-sharing arrangement that placed equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats on each committee? Will it be the Trent Lott who remembers that a Republican-controlled Senate for six of President Bill Clinton´s eight years confirmed 377 federal judges? Or will it be the Trent Lott who, in a memo released last week, fired a warning shot across the bow of the Democrats. “Any reorganization of the Senate the reality that the Democrats hold a plurality, not a majority in the Senate, and that their effective control of the Senate lacks the moral authority of a mandate from the voters,” Mr. Lott wrote.
As Mr. Daschle stressed to Mr. Lott during their power-sharing negotiations in January, any reorganization is subject to a filibuster. That´s a significant amount of leverage to have, as Mr. Daschle demonstrated in January. In view of the Democrats´ plurality and his earlier accommodations, Mr. Lott has every right to exercise that leverage. He should elicit a commitment from Mr. Daschle to permit judicial, agency and departmental nominations by Mr. Bush to be subjected to a debate and a vote in the full Senate. Short of that, Mr. Lott and his Republican colleagues should filibuster to death any reorganization resolution and other matters that might come before the Democratic-controlled Senate before an equitable organizing agreement can be achieved.