Washington Using the new muscle they gained in last November's elections, Democrats won important concessions from Republicans on Friday for running the first 100-seat Senate to be split evenly between the parties.
The new rules will enhance Senate Democrats' chances to block or reshape GOP President-elect George W. Bush's agenda as he tries to push it through the 107th Congress, which convened on Wednesday. Included are equal numbers of seats for Democrats and Republicans on every Senate committee and curbs on each party's ability to block the other's amendments on the Senate floor.
The agreement marks yet another remarkable consequence of last year's amazingly close election. The Nov. 7 voting produced a 50-50 Senate and a House held barely by Republicans as well as the bitterly contested presidential victory by Bush that saw him lose the popular vote but narrowly capture an Electoral College majority.
"If the resolution I have just introduced is not miraculous, it is at the very least historic," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said before the chamber approved the package by voice vote. "It is also fair and reasonable."
"It was an unusual election year," said the Senate's top Republican, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, adding, "Are we going to make this republic work, produce for the people, or argue over part B of rule 12 of the Senate?"
The procedures were resisted by some members of both parties and as such represented a risk for both Daschle and Lott.
The most vocal critics were some Republicans who insisted on retaining the upper hand, since the Jan. 20 ascension of the GOP's Dick Cheney to the vice presidency when he and Bush are inaugurated will give them a 51st vote in the full Senate. The Constitution lets the vice president vote to break ties.
"It is difficult for me to see how two people can drive the car at the same time," said Lott's top lieutenant, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla.
But after weeks of bargaining between Lott and Daschle, Republicans bowed to the political reality that Democrats had enough votes to block any Senate business until they were satisfied.
"This resolution may haunt me, but it's fair and allows us to go on with the people's business," Lott said.
"It is a leap of faith and we hope it's not off a cliff," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
Reflecting the lingering dissatisfaction, the Senate's use of a voice vote to approve the plan avoided a public show of dissension by lawmakers that could have embarrassed the leaders, particularly Lott.
Win some, lose some
Democrats did not get all they wanted. Some of them wanted to become co-chairmen of committees, but Republicans retained the right to chair all the committees beginning on Jan. 20, when Bush and Cheney take office.
Even so, Democrats were the day's big winners.
Having fought their way from a 54-46 Senate minority last year to a 50-50 tie, Democrats won much of what they wanted. This included parity on committees and in hiring staff, and procedures that will make it harder for Lott to stop them when they try amending bills or debate them for extended periods.
Since Senate Republicans, in the majority since 1995, have more aides than Democrats, the agreement to equalize staffs is sure to end up costing taxpayers more money.
Republicans have also had two-seat majorities in one case a three-seat edge on Senate committees.
The plan will allow either party's leader to get bills or nominations to the full Senate after a tie vote in committee. Until now, a tie vote has killed a measure before it reaches the Senate floor.
If a vote by a subcommittee is tied, the committee chairman could still bring the measure before the full committee for consideration.
The agreement leaves open the question of membership on crucial conference committees, which negotiate final versions of bills with the House. Lott told reporters he believed Republicans would get majorities on conference committees.
Though it was not formalized in the Senate-approved resolution, the leaders also agreed to "seek to attain an equal balance" between the parties for scheduling and debating on the Senate floor. And they will share the job of presiding over the Senate, important because the presiding senator recognizes speakers and can thus control the debate.
Significantly, they also agreed that if a senator resigns or dies and the Senate's 50-50 party ratio changes, they would alter the rules all over again and make changes to reflect the chambers' new numbers.
The last time the Senate was evenly divided was for the first few months of 1881, when the chamber had 37 Democrats, 37 Republicans, and two independents who split evenly between the two parties.