- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2001

The apostasy of Sen. James Jeffords from the Republican Party is a truly seismic event. By shifting control of the Senate to the Democratic Party, it will sharply reduce what President Bush will be able to accomplish in the next 3 1/2 years.
It does not, of course, change the ideological profile of the Senate at all. There are exactly as many liberals and conservatives in it today as there were last week, and they will presumably vote pretty much as they did before the shift in control. Mr. Bushs tax cut bill, for example, passed the Senate by a husky 62 to 38, despite 54 desperate attempts by the Democrats to amend it, and there is no reason to think the result would have been much different if Sen. Tom Daschles title at the time had been majority leader rather than minority leader.
But Democratic control of the Senate brings with it the power to set the agenda and to name the chairmen of the Senates committees, who have many ways of influencing what their committees do. Here, too, the chairman controls the agenda and can often defeat a bill or nominee he doesnt like by simply not bringing it up for a vote. This is harder when (as at present) the committees have an equal number of members of both parties, but it is not impossible. As a result, Mr. Bushs nominees for judgeships, for example, who were already a major Democratic target, will find the going much tougher in a Democratic-controlled judiciary committee.
Approval of nominees for federal district judgeships can be delayed almost indefinitely without attracting much attention. Nominees for the circuit courts can be subjected to exquisitely detailed and prolonged interrogation. As for Supreme Court justices, Mr. Bush might do well to hope that none resign soon. If the Republicans recapture the Senate in 2002, that will be a more propitious time to propose nominees for the Supreme Court.
But just as Sen. Trent Lotts majority leadership hung by a single vote, so will Mr. Daschles, and control of the Senate will continue to be a singularly "iffy" proposition. Everybody more or less assumes that, because he is 98 and fading visibly, Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, will be the next member to pass from the scene. But any actuary will tell you death is not all that predictable. The next senator to go may be a hard-driving Type A in his 50s who only recently began noticing chest pains. And you can bet that, in that body of mostly elderly men, there are several cases of cancer we havent heard about, and that perhaps not even the victims have yet heard about.
So control of the U.S. Senate may be Republican today and Democratic tomorrow, but it could well be Republican again the day after tomorrow. And that is why Mr. Daschle is not likely to be too domineering in his dealings with the Republicans, just as Mr. Lott was reasonably receptive to Democratic demands when the Senate was organized back in January.
Because the Republicans continue to hold both the presidency and the House of Representatives, there are severe limits on what a Democratic-controlled Senate can do. It can propose its own legislative agenda, of course, but passing it, in an evenly divided Senate, will be difficult and, in any case, purely symbolic. The Democrats also can, and undoubtedly will, try to block as much of Mr. Bushs agenda as possible, using the committee chairmanship tactics described above, along with other parliamentary maneuvers. But just how much of it they can block is far from certain, as their defeat in the tax vote demonstrated. Twelve Democratic senators defected on that vote, and that does not bode well for Mr. Daschles future bouts with Mr. Bush.
Indeed, President Bush may find that a Senate narrowly controlled by the Democrats and dedicated to blocking his agenda can be a very useful whipping boy. Harry Truman demonized the whole "good-for-nothing, do-nothing 80th Congress," and won the election of 1948. If Mr. Bush succeeds in portraying the Democratic Senate as a bunch of partisan obstructionists more interested in scoring political points than in working with him and the House to benefit the country, he will be doing an enormous favor for Republican candidates running against incumbent Democratic senators in 2002.

William A. Rusher is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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