WASHINGTON — On the eve of a historic shift in power, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle pledged Tuesday to “reach out and create bipartisan coalitions” on health care and other issues when his party takes control for the first time in six years. Republicans said they would demand fair play for President Bush’s nominees and fight to keep his agenda at the forefront.
“We should have a war of ideas, and we should have a full campaign for the Senate in 2002,” said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the outgoing majority leader.
At the White House, President Bush welcomed a diverse group of lawmakers for a discussion of education. “We can still get things done” despite the switch, he said.
Vermont Sen. James Jeffords, a Republican-turned-independent whose switch triggered the Senate upheaval, turned down a last-ditch appeal from one GOP senator to reconsider his move. Shortly before stepping into a closed-door Democratic caucus, he said he felt a “sense of relief that it is all over, that the final step has been taken.”
Officials said that overnight Jeffords’ desk would be unbolted from its spot on the floor on the GOP side of the Senate chamber and reattached on the Democratic side – a move of only a few feet that signified a major shift in political power.
The Senate convened for the last time in a tumultuous six-year period of Republican rule that began with the “Contract With America” and included the second impeachment trial in American history. The day’s legislation was an education bill, an item atop Bush’s agenda. Debate was desultory as both parties focused on the transfer of power, and lawmakers adjourned for the day without so much as a vote on an amendment.
A committee of Republicans met with Daschle, D-S.D., late in the day to discuss organizational issues, including the size of committees and the ratio of seats for each party. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., emerged to say it had been a “cordial meeting. I think it was productive,” he added, with more talks expected on Wednesday.
Under an expiring 50-50 power-sharing arrangement, Republicans held the chairmanships but there were equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats on each panel.
Jeffords’ switch will create a Senate of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent who sides with the Democrats for organizational purposes. That means Democrats get the chairmanships and a majority of at least one seat on each panel.
Republicans conceded as much, but said they wanted fairness from the Democrats, particularly when it comes time to consider Bush’s nominees for the federal bench and other posts.
“We’re looking for fairness, we’re looking for an opportunity for this body to function, for the president and the executive branch to be able to function. Just some assurances that there will be fairness with nominees from the president, both judicial and otherwise,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
It’s customary for the two parties to haggle over committee appointments and ratios at the beginning of each two-year Congress, and often the process takes three or four weeks or even more.
Daschle and several of the GOP senators who were appointed to meet with him said in advance they doubted there would be an agreement by day’s end.
Even without an agreement, Daschle, 53 and six years his party’s leader, becomes majority leader with the opening gavel on Wednesday.
And in another sign of change, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., crossed the Capitol during the day to pay the Democratic leader a visit. An aide said the two men discussed health care and other legislation.
Daschle told reporters he hoped to show a “real difference in both the direction we hope to take the Senate agenda, as well as tone.” He cited numerous topics that he said were important bipartisan issues, including education, a patients’ bill of rights, a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, an increase in the minimum wage and energy legislation.
“So our hope is not necessarily to move a purely ideological agenda but one that enjoys bipartisan support and ideas right from the beginning.”
Lott also spoke of bipartisanship, but took Democrats to task for comments made last week that were dismissive of elements of Bush’s agenda such as the national missile defense system.
“I’ve got to make sure that the American people understand that the president’s agenda, the American people’s agenda, will be considered in the Senate,” he said.
Lott has called Jeffords’ move a “coup of one,” and he issued a memo to GOP insiders last week that said the party must “begin to wage war today for the election in 2002.
We have a moral obligation to restore the integrity of our democracy, to restore by the democratic process what was changed in the shadows of the backrooms in Washington.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Democratic vice presidential candidate in the presidential election settled last year on a 5-4 vote of the Supreme Court, laughed at those sentiments.
“We’ve accepted the fact that George W. Bush is now the president of the United States. That’s the reality,” he said.
“We respect it, and I think our Republican friends have to now accept the reality that Tom Daschle is majority leader, and they have to respect that, too.”