WASHINGTON – Democrats jump-started their control of the Senate on Wednesday by calling an early-morning Judiciary Committee hearing on one of President Bush's pet projects: federal money for religious groups.
Although cloaked in bipartisanship, the only Senate hearing Wednesday accentuated the problems Democrats and Republicans will face because of the historic midyear change in power.
On the surface, the switch went smoothly. Leahy called the committee to order with a gavel his son made for him when he was in high school. The senator said using the gavel is his tradition whenever he takes the chairmanship of a new committee.
Former committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pointedly came up and shook Leahy's hand before the hearing.
"Senator Hatch asked to have this hearing, and even though today is the first day of a different Senate, out of my respect for his concerns and my respect for him personally, we will hold this hearing," Leahy said.
"We're good friends and hopefully we can accomplish a lot together," Hatch responded, congratulating the new chairman for taking over a "very important committee."
Paying heed to the unexpected turn of events that brought his party back to power, Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware remarked, "We understand it's better to be lucky than good." To which Leahy, D-Vt., replied: "It's better to be a Vermonter."
Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican party gave control to the Democrats.
Republicans have been worried about what Democratic control of the Judiciary Committee, which sits in judgment on judicial nominations, will mean for Bush's choices for federal judgeships. Democrats complained last year that Republicans were holding up President Clinton's nominations, and Republicans fear Democrats will try to retaliate by holding up Bush's.
Leahy said he will hold judicial nomination hearings, however, "within a week or so" after the Senate is reorganized.
Committees in the new Senate will have to do some shifting, as shown by Wednesday's Judiciary Committee hearing.
Until the two parties finish negotiating the reorganization, the change in power requires the committees to revert to last year's composition when the Republicans were in control of the chamber.
But four of this year's Judiciary members weren't on last year's roster and lose their seats until reorganization: Democrats Maria Cantwell of Washington and Richard Durbin of Illinois and Republicans Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sam Brownback of Kansas.
Brownback and Durbin showed up at Wednesday's hearing anyway, even though they wouldn't be able to vote. Leahy spokesman David Carle said the chairman invited the senators to sit in on the hearing since they were interested in the topic.
Leahy has said there won't be any votes on the Judiciary Committee until after the Senate is reorganized.