Washington On a day of upheaval beneath the Capitol dome, Democrats snared control of the Senate on the strength of a party defection Thursday and pledged to temper President Bush's agenda while advancing their own. "I can no longer" remain a Republican, said Vermont Sen. James Jeffords in a personal declaration of independence.
A moderate in a party of conservatives, Jeffords said he bluntly warned Bush earlier this week "I firmly believe he would be a one-term president" unless he agrees to more funding for education.
Jeffords' decision to leave the GOP altered the political balance of power instantly. "We intend to govern" in a spirit of fairness, said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the majority-leader-in-waiting and the nation's highest-ranking Democrat. "We can't dictate to them, nor can they dictate to us," he said of the GOP.
Daschle quickly signaled a shift in priorities, though, telling his rank and file that after the Senate completes the president's bipartisan education legislation, the first Democratic piece of legislation will be a patients' bill of rights measure, long stalled in the GOP Senate.
"We will be acting and they will be reacting instead of the opposite," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the Republicans.
Bush, suddenly confronted with a Democratic-controlled Senate, said he respected Jeffords, but "couldn't disagree more," with his charge that the administration was too conservative.
"Jim was always a tough fit" in the party, said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. And Karl Rove, Bush's senior political strategist, sought to cast doubt on Jeffords' declaration that his defection was based on principled policy differences. "There is a lot of talk around town, about committee chairs and deals and bargains and pledges," he said on CNN.
The Republican leader, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, said he expected no change in his party's leadership. But behind closed doors, a painful process of reckoning began for a party that held 55 seats as recently as last July, but now can claim only 49. Several GOP sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Pete Domenici of New Mexico all stressed a need for the party of conservatives to tolerate differing views.
"We've just been through an earthquake here," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "What we're doing here is helping the survivors and pulling the wounded" to safety.
Leaders on both sides busy
His days as majority leader dwindling, Lott, R-Miss., began hustling several of Bush's nominations to confirmation, including the controversial choice of Ted Olson to become solicitor general.
But power already was flowing to the soft-spoken Daschle, 53 and six years the Democratic leader. Democratic aides said he wanted to let Olson come to a vote now rather than have a partisan floor fight in his party's early days in the majority.
Within hours of Jeffords' announcement, Daschle also telephoned Bush, with whom relations have been frosty. The president angered the senator earlier in the year when he went to South Dakota to campaign for his tax cut without notifying the senator first.
Eagerly anticipating a return to power, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts told reporters he hoped to move a minimum wage increase quickly; Maryland's Sen. Paul Sarbanes scheduled a news conference to preview a Democratic agenda for the banking committee.
Not all chairmanships were set. For example, it wasn't clear whether Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware would choose to head the Foreign Relations Committee or Judiciary Committee.
But one shift was certain: Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, 83, becomes president pro tem, third in line of succession to the presidency, replacing 98-year-old Republican Strom Thurmond.
Jeffords' announcement sent a wave of jubilation through the ranks of Democrats, consigned to the minority since 1994.
"How does it feel to be in the majority?" former GOP Sen. Dan Coats asked Sen. Paul Wellstone when the two men crossed paths just off the Senate floor. "I can't remember," Wellstone, D-Minn., replied with a hearty laugh.
Jeffords, 67, an amiable but determined moderate in a party grown ever more conservative, seemed an unlikely politician to be at the center of an unprecedented event. A supporter of abortion rights, the environment and education, he clashed with the administration over budget priorities earlier in the year.
At a news conference in Burlington, Vt., he dismissed talk that he had been snubbed as a result, but he said, "Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them."
Jeffords said he would become an independent but side with the Democrats for organizational purposes, the critical distinction that hands them control. He said the switch would become effective as soon as Congress sends Bush his income tax cut, expected by week's end.
Let's make a deal
For all the high-minded rhetoric, the defection was the culmination of political dealmaking on all sides and moments of human emotion unusual in the Senate.
Democrats agreed in advance to give Jeffords the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a move that will require Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the party whip, to step aside. Kennedy, four decades a senator, said he, too, had signaled a willingness to give up his chairmanship of the education committee if Jeffords wanted to claim it.
Republicans made a quick run at Georgia Democrat Zell Miller in hopes he would switch parties and throw the Senate back into a 50-50 tie, but he declined.
They also mounted a last-ditch attempt to entice Jeffords back into the fold, including his meeting with longtime colleagues who stood to lose their committee chairmanships. Some lawmakers wept, according to participants in the session.
"It was the most emotional time that I have ever had in my life, with my closest friends urging me not to do what I was going to do because it affected their lives very substantially," Jeffords told his news conference. "I know, for instance, the chairman of the Finance Committee (Charles Grassley of Iowa) has dreamed all his life of being chairman.
"He's chairman a couple of weeks, and now he will be no longer the chairman."