Washington As lights went out in the Senate Tuesday evening, the darkness signaled the end of an era for the Republicans and a new dawn for Democrats who took control of the Senate for the first time since 1994.
With incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., poised to press a Democratic agenda far different from the one advanced by President Bush and outgoing Senate Republican leaders, the Senate shakeup has dire implications for the president.
First on the Senate Democratic agenda is a "Patients' Bill of Rights," designed to give patients the right to sue their insurance companies, followed by a Medicare prescription drug benefit bill.
"We're going to do it in as much of a bipartisan way as I possibly can," Daschle said.
He may be forced to work in a bipartisan fashion. While Democrats now lead the Senate by virtue of a 50-49-1 majority, centrists in the body still hold sway because of the nearly equal split.
Bush Tuesday held his first meeting with Senate Democratic leaders on the topic of education, one of his primary issues and one over which Democrats now preside. The education bill is pending on the Senate floor, and Democrats have signaled their intent to increase funding for disadvantaged and disabled children.
Included in the White House meeting was the man who started it all: Sen. James Jeffords, whose decision to bolt the Republican Party in a Senate then divided 50-50 swung power to the Democrats. The last time Jeffords was at the White House was two weeks ago to inform Bush he was leaving the Republicans, a dramatic move he blamed directly on the refusal of Bush and Republican leaders to increase education spending enough.
Jeffords called Tuesday's meeting a "reassuring moment," adding that education "is one area that we're going to move forward rapidly, and with all of the necessary people joining together to get a good bill out and get it out quickly."
Bush, with understatement, noted that the "structure of the Senate may have been altered somewhat," but he insisted that "we can still get things done in a way that's positive for America."
In an effort to shore up his ties to Capitol Hill, Bush and his wife, Laura, planned to have dinner at the White House with Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Speculation swirled over the weekend that McCain was considering following Jeffords out of the party, though McCain denied he's leaving the GOP.