WASHINGTON — As they return this week to a Senate they no longer control, Republican lawmakers appear deeply divided over how to regroup, with GOP leaders urging a more combative, partisan tone while prominent moderates reach out to newly empowered Democrats.
The split came into sharp focus this weekend, with outgoing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) sending a memo to colleagues urging "an aggressive, offensive effort" against the Democratic agenda, even while centrist Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) played host to key Democratic leaders at his retreat near Sedona, Ariz.
The lawmakers' actions underscore the stark choices confronting the GOP in the wake of the defection of Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, a moderate who, after battling with the GOP's conservative wing, is becoming an independent and handing control of the Senate to Democrats for the first time since 1994.
"Republicans are staggering around here trying to figure out how to act in a post-Jeffords world," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. "It's a question of how much do you slide to the center versus how much you stay committed to the pre-Jeffords agenda."
The strains in the GOP are surfacing as senators return from the Memorial Day recess to confront a week that will likely be one of the most tumultuous in recent memory.
When Jeffords' change takes effect late Tuesday, it will tilt a previous 50-50 party balance in the Senate, and the Democrats will assume control. Leadership roles will be reversed, committee chairmen must turn over their gavels, freshman senators will temporarily lose their committee assignments and the legislative course that lawmakers envisioned just weeks ago will take an abrupt, leftward turn.
The Senate is used to turmoil in the wake of an election, but it has never confronted such a reorganization in the middle of a congressional session. The changes will have particular effect on party leaders, whose influence will turn on Jeffords' switch.
Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is poised to vault from minority leader to majority leader, giving him significant new power to set the Senate's legislative agenda.
His counterpart, Lott, will yield his title as majority leader for the first time since assuming the position in 1996. Lott has come under heavy criticism because Jeffords' defection marked the sixth Senate seat the GOP has lost under Lott's leadership over the last year.
Lott's memo--distributed to GOP leaders, senators scheduled to appear on talk shows today, as well as to conservative columnists and party officials--was viewed by some as an attempt to shore up his political base. It outlines a strategy of renewed aggression for Republicans.
Lott urged colleagues to characterize Jeffords' defection as a "coup of one" that subverts the will of the American people and requires "an aggressive, offensive effort" to advance the conservative agenda and stymie Democrats' plans. Republicans, the memo concludes, "must begin to wage the war today for the election in 2002."
The combative language, also reflected in recent radio appearances by Lott, indicates that he has rejected the more conciliatory, bipartisan approach that some in the party urged after Jeffords announced his change.
A GOP leadership aide said that Lott intends to return to the tactics he believes earned him his leadership position and that he will model his tenure as a minority leader in the Senate on the approach he took as a Republican whip in the House. Lott was then known for fierce partisanship and for demanding party discipline.
An aide to another GOP senator said Lott "is trying to shore up his right flank to make certain he can stem any problems he has right now."
Lott's partisan push will likely please hard-liners in the party, including Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who argued that the leadership had been too accommodating of its moderate wing.
But the new, more strident direction risks alienating centrists, including Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and McCain, who continue to be wooed by Democrats and who have bristled under Republican leadership that they consider too uncompromising.
When Jeffords announced his change, Chafee complained that "it's a tight, strong group of conservatives that call all the shots" among Senate Republicans. McCain argued that Republicans should learn from the episode to be more inclusive, saying, "It is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up."
The competing GOP impulses pose a dilemma for President Bush, as well as for a more pragmatic bloc of Republican senators that includes Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.
"The risk of sounding bipartisan is that you alienate the base, making it seem as if Daschle is running the show," Rothenberg said. "At the same time, if you adopt just the Lott approach and appear to be picking a fight, that's the one thing the public doesn't like."