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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Senate Confronts 50-50 Divide, Raising Power-Sharing Issues

Parties: Budget, staffing concerns will likely arise. And what is to become of the title 'majority leader'?

December 02, 2000|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Split the committees right down the middle: half Republicans, half Democrats. Divvy up the spoils evenly--budget, staff and office space. And for good measure, reconsider a job title that now seems not quite precise: "Senate majority leader."

Such are the rumblings coming from some Democrats as the Senate faces the strong possibility of its first 50-50 partisan divide.

On Friday, a weeklong recount in Washington state confirmed the victory of Democrat Maria Cantwell over Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican. Cantwell won by 2,229 votes out of nearly 2.5 million cast.

As a consequence, the Nov. 7 election for the first time yielded a perfect two-party balance in the Senate--sharply distinct from past splits muddied by the presence of independent and third-party senators.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 5, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Vice president's role--A story Saturday misstated the vice president's role in the Senate. The vice president is president of the Senate, not president pro tem.

The new Senate's balance still could be upended if Al Gore prevails in his quest for the presidency and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), resigns his seat to become vice president. In that event, Connecticut's GOP governor has said that he will choose a Republican to fill the vacancy, giving the party a 51-49 edge.

But the implications of the mesmerizing 50-50 prospect are starting to take hold on Capitol Hill.

Technically, Democrats would control the Senate for as many as 17 days next month while Gore finishes his term as vice president. In that office, he serves as president pro tem of the Senate and is empowered to break tie votes.

If Republican George W. Bush becomes president on Jan. 20, Dick Cheney would become perhaps the most pivotal vice president in Senate history. His tie-breaking vote alone would be the only factor keeping Republicans in control of Congress' upper chamber.

The ferment over organizing the new Senate comes as Republicans and Democrats next week prepare to elect their leaders. The top Republican, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, and the top Democrat, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, face no challengers.

But mavericks and centrists on both sides of the aisle--such as Sens. John B. Breaux (D-La.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.)--are already emerging as voices for bipartisanship and, perhaps, key power brokers in a new landscape in which the two parties virtually neutralize each other.

"Bipartisanship is no longer going to be just a political theory," Breaux said. "It's going to be a political necessity. It's clear that unless we cooperate there's nothing that's going to get done."

McCain said that senators "have to do business differently than we have in the past. Our leadership has to change dramatically in that we have to include the Democrats. We have to--they have half of the votes. We have to act in a bipartisan fashion and we can't exclude them from the process."

McCain signaled this week that his first order of business will be to push for Senate passage of campaign finance reform. The GOP leadership has thwarted him on his signature issue in past years, but McCain believes that the Senate's new makeup could overcome this opposition. And showing a willingness to take advantage of the tenuous control Republican leaders will have, McCain is threatening to block action on other fronts if the new Senate does not tackle campaign finance reform almost immediately.

Breaux said that more modest initial goals might be in order--such as passing education reform measures both parties could agree on easily. He envisions success on that front paving the way for possible action on tougher issues, such as Social Security and Medicare reform.

But beyond these suggestions, what 50-50 will mean on a practical level is hard to tell. Lott, the majority leader since 1996, could not be reached for comment. Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the second-ranking Republican, has said that power-sharing should not mean co-chairs of committees but acknowledged that both sides need to work together more.

Democratic senators and analysts say the numbers dictate that the two parties will have to hammer out agreements on such matters as committee ratios, budgets and staff. Republicans currently have a slight edge in committee slots and control twice as much committee funding as Democrats.There also may have to be some give-and-take on scheduling floor votes--currently the strongest power of the majority leader.

"There's no modern counterpart to this," said Steve Smith, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota who is an expert on the Senate. "This is something that's pounded out in down-to-earth negotiations between the parties, if at all."

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