WASHINGTON — Republicans waited almost 50 years to win control of the White House, the Senate and the House at the same time--the branches of the federal government with vast power over national policy.
But barely four months after the GOP achieved this goal, it apparently will slip from its grasp with the expected announcement today by Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont that he is leaving the Republican Party. That would allow Democrats to take command of the Senate--and abruptly put the brakes on Washington's headlong turn to the right since the 2000 elections.
For Republicans, the entire episode--even if Jeffords defied expectations and decided not to abandon the party--raises the question of whether their decades-long shift to the right has made the party so inhospitable to moderates that they have crippled their ability to hold together a ruling coalition.
Among Republicans who do not adhere to the conservative line, "it's real easy to feel like an outsider," said former Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota, a moderate Republican like Jeffords.
For Democrats, Jeffords' expected defection will deliver new power to control the flow of legislation and judicial nominations and will catapult a new, far more liberal cast of characters into positions of authority.
It does not mean the Democrats can whisk their agenda--minimum-wage increases, new Medicare benefits and the like--into law. But it allows them to break the GOP monopoly on what gets debated in Congress.
The implications of a Jeffords switch "is about controlling the legislative agenda," said Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.). "And it's about the federal judiciary. This is an enormous shift of influence in the federal government."
For President Bush, whose signature tax cut and education bills have moved with surprising alacrity in Congress, a Democratic-controlled Senate would mean that the honeymoon--what's left of it--is really over.
"It brings his agenda to a complete halt," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). "President Bush will get two of his principal objectives--education and the tax cut--and nothing else out of this Congress. Bush needs to campaign very hard [to regain GOP control] in 2002."
As a practical matter, a transfer of power to Senate Democrats would not take place instantaneously. Jeffords is expected to announce today that he will leave the GOP to become an independent. The delay is intended to give Republicans time to finish work on the White House-backed $1.35-trillion tax cut bill before Democrats take charge. Jeffords would then caucus with Democrats, giving them a 51-49 edge.
Whatever date a Jeffords party switch became effective, the biggest change will be the automatic transfer of the post of Senate majority leader from Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a conservative Southerner who is devoted to the Bush agenda, to Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a liberal populist who has led the opposition to virtually everything Bush stands for. Daschle will inherit Lott's power to decide what legislation goes to the floor--and what sits in committee.
Democrats will also immediately succeed Republicans as committee chairmen, which gives them the power to move and shape legislation, call hearings to spotlight legislation and launch investigations. The chairmen-in-waiting generally include not the more centrist Democrats who have wielded tremendous clout in the 50-50 Senate, but some of the party's most liberal members: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, in line to lead the committee that oversees health and education legislation; Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, expected to become Judiciary Committee chairman; and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the likely head of the Foreign Relations panel.
But Democrats' power will have clear limits. Not only do they face a Republican House and president, the GOP still holds great sway in the Senate. Because a minority of 41 can sustain a filibuster, it usually takes support from 60 senators to get a bill passed.
Although the sweeping tax cut bill that Bush has sought remains likely to become law, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the anticipated Finance Committee chairman in a Democratic Senate, said the prospects would change for other tax measures later this year. Bills to increase tax breaks for business, for instance, would face tough going.
And with control of the Senate agenda, Democrats would be able to force lawmakers to at least debate--if not pass--bills that have been bottled up by Republicans, such as a Medicare prescription drug benefit, new regulations for managed health care and a minimum-wage increase.
"The president's agenda is not necessarily the Senate's agenda" if Jeffords switches, said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).
The change also would likely have a profound effect on Bush's nominations to the judiciary and other appointments. Lott was prepared to use his leadership power to force a vote on the White House choice for solicitor general, Theodore B. Olson, which stalled on a tie vote in the Judiciary Committee.