WASHINGTON – After consulting with the few famous political independents, interim Minnesota Sen. Dean Barkley said Monday that he will not organize with either party when the Senate begins a lame-duck session on Tuesday, in effect enabling Democrats to keep control of the majority.
"I am an independent, the governor who appointed me is an independent, and I believe the best way to serve the people of Minnesota is to remain independent," Barkley, 52, said in a written statement. "Rather than adding to the partisanship that so often characterizes Congress, I would like to focus on bridging differences and helping to move important legislation forward."
The short-term senator — appointed by Gov. Jesse Ventura to fill out the term of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash on Oct. 25 — said he made the decision to remain independent after consulting with independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, former Republican representative and independent presidential candidate John Anderson of Illinois, and former Republican senator and independent Gov. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut.
"Across the board, their advice was: Keep your options open, and stay true to yourself, your principles and your constituents," Barkley said.
The decision by Barkley, who is serving only until Jan. 7, when Republican Sen.-elect Norm Coleman is sworn into office, has an enormous if time-limited impact on the Senate, which is meeting only on a limited agenda.
With 50 votes, including Jeffords', Democrats can now craft the agenda for the lame-duck session, which is scheduled to convene for at least one week. Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota can also continue in the post of majority leader when the Senate is gaveled into session Tuesday.
Republicans, who have 49 votes in the current Congress, had hoped Barkley would give them the edge to set the agenda during that interim period before the next session. If Barkley voted with them, Vice President Dick Cheney, president of the Senate, would cast tie-breaking votes in the 50-50 Senate.
Republicans will, however, get help in one area. Barkley has said that homeland security — a top priority for Republicans and the White House — is one of his primary objectives. He was scheduled to meet with President Bush on Tuesday.
"The president was very insistent that we get together, work out an acceptable agreement, and get this done before we leave town in this lame-duck session. He's the president, and he just showed real leadership and I'm going to support this effort, it is the right thing to do and we can make it happen," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Lott, top White House officials and key centrist Democrats negotiated on a homeland security bill over the weekend. A sticking point remains over labor rights for the 43,000 unionized federal employees due to move into the new Department of Homeland Security. Lott said if it doesn't get done during the lame-duck session, creation of a department will be set back even longer.
"If we don't do it now it will be four or five months because you will have to start all over again," Lott said.
Barkley, until now Minnesota's planning director and founder of the state's Independence Party, has been wooed by both Lott and Daschle and by Bush since being appointed nearly two weeks ago.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the administration "will continue to work with him and other members of Congress to enact our priorities in the lame-duck session."
Barkley said his first act as a senator after being sworn in Tuesday afternoon will be to give a tribute speech for Wellstone and his wife Sheila, who were killed along with their daughter, three campaign workers and two pilots.
However, even while Democrats remain in charge for a short time, Republicans will get the Senate back before January. Republican Sen.-elect Jim Talent, who defeated Democrat Jean Carnahan to fill out the seat won posthumously by Carnahan's husband in 2000, will be sworn in Nov. 22.
Fox News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.