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After the Celebration: What Can a GOP Senate Do?

As confetti is swept away and hangovers subside, Republican circles are moving full throttle to take advantage of the so-called "lame-duck" session of Congress -- the weeks between the old and new Senate -- and jump-start the new GOP-controlled session beginning Jan. 3.

Lawmakers face an array of unresolved issues during the lame-duck session and Republicans want to make certain their priorities take the Senate's attention. Either way, they are ready to move on their agenda in two months, as soon as the 108th Senate is sworn in with at least a 51-seat Republican majority.

In a press conference Wednesday morning, Republican Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said he was eager to pursue legislation that had been hanging in the balance -- including the homeland security bill, which had been held up by battles over whether unions would have a say in hiring and firing some homeland security employees.

Lott, who is set to become majority leader in January, was careful not to put a timelime on his goals and indicated that he can't dispense with Democrats altogether.

"The American people have indicated that they want the House, the Senate, the president to get things done, to produce results, to not get tangled up in partisan politics that we saw so much of this year in the Senate," Lott told reporters.

Lott said he intends to put the focus on the budget, tax policy, prescription drugs and welfare reform, which he said the Senate would try to get done early next year.

In preparation for the turnover, several Republican chairs have already been named. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico will take over the Energy Committee. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama will head up banking. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah will return as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the panel in charge of judicial confirmations, and a seat Hatch held before the Democratic takeover of the Senate 17 months ago.

Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma is set to take over the chairmanship of the Budget Committee, putting him in control of authorizing the 13 government spending bills each year.

In the meantime, government continues to operate under a continuing resolution, the result of Congress' failure to complete 12 of this year's 13 appropriations bills before members left Washington last month to campaign. Another continuing resolution extending the current year's budget through December is likely to be passed when Congress reconvenes next week for to start the lame-duck session.

But whether the federal budget will be decided before the GOP takes control of the Senate or afterward remains to be seen.

"The question is, do (Republicans) want to finish out the business of a Senate where the bills were shaped and designed by the Democratic staffs, the Democratic cardinals and leadership? Or do they want to pass a continuing resolution into calendar year '03, where all those bills can be done in the context of a Republican Senate?" asked Mike Franc, political analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

"Republican leaders will have to consider a number of options. One of them would be to wait, solidify the majority and proceed in January," said Greg Crist, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

Post-election analysts speculate that the homeland security bill is likely the only initiative Republicans can move on during the waning weeks of the current session, mostly because Democrats see no difference between passing it now and passing it next year. If anything, the experts say, Democrats don't want to risk the appearance of sour grapes by trying to stall it.

"Homeland security is probably the one issue where the Democrats will say 'Let's get as much as we can now on the labor front, which won't be a lot, because we won't get anything in February and we won't get the credit on helping national defense if we don't,'" said John Samples, political analyst for the Cato Institute.

What appears certain is that as soon as possible, the Republican majority will move on pushing through a host of President Bush's judicial nominees who have been blocked by Democrats.

"Getting good men, women, and minorities in the federal judiciary, on the bench, that are strong in their interpretation of the Constitution ... was a factor that played into the results of the election," Lott said Wednesday.

But before any of the GOP's plans can turn into action, organizing issues must be sorted out.

For one, Republican Sen.-elect Jim Talent may be sworn in before the new session begins, giving the Republicans a one-seat numerical advantage in the waning days of the current Congress. Talent was elected to fill out the term won by Democrat Mel Carnahan, who died three weeks before being elected to the Senate in 2000.

According to Missouri law, Talent takes office as soon as results are certified, a formality that rests with Democratic Gov. Bob Holden, the man who defeated Talent by a narrow margin two years ago.

Federal law requires Holden and the secretary of state, Republican Matt Blunt, to validate results to the Senate. Holden has said he would follow the law, but has not said how quickly he would sign off on the election results.

Also complicating matters was Minn. Gov. Jesse Ventura's appointment of interim Sen. Dean Barkley, an Independent who is serving out the term left vacant by the death of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone. Barkley will hold the seat until the next Congress, when Republican Norm Coleman will be sworn in as Minnesota's newest senator.

Before that happens, though, Barkley will have a say in issues being addressed during the lame-duck session. And no one knows where he stands on critical issues, adding to short-term uncertainty.

Observers warn Republicans that even without the results of the Louisiana run-off between Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell in December, and a possible recount of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson's narrow win against Republican Rep. John Thune, anything could change with the blink of an eye. 

"Various wild cards can complicate what the final makeup of the Senate is," Crist said.    

Analysts warn Republicans to keep a close watch over their unbridled members in an effort to avoid a party switch like the one pulled by Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords in 2001, which ended up shifting control of the Senate to the Democrats.

"Republicans need to be very, very careful and very aware of where their caucus is at all times," warned Franc.

With such a thin majority in the new Senate, Republicans can also expect filibusters and all sorts of stall tactics when it comes to certain issues where the Democrats just won't give, analysts said.

"The Senate is a place where the individual, not the institution, dominates, and if an individual is willing to push things against the wall, they can really slow things down," said Samples. 

Fox News' Major Garrett and the Associated Press contributed to this report.