WASHINGTON – One thing is certain: The Democrats are regaining control of the Senate. But there are a lot of nameplates to move and some major procedural hurdles to overcome before the Democrats are truly back in power.
In January, after the election left the Senate in a 50-50 tie, Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., worked out an unprecedented power-sharing arrangement that gave Democrats an equal number of seats on committees while keeping the chairmanships for Republicans.
That agreement ends with Vermont Republican James Jeffords' decision to become an independent, giving Democrats a 50-49 advantage. Lott said Jeffords had agreed the switch would take effect only after Congress completed work on the 11-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut or June 5, whichever came later.
It also is clear that the Senate must vote on a resolution establishing new committee ratios and membership. Some Republicans believe chairmanships, too, are subject to a vote, although Democrats disagree, saying the change to Democratic chairmen will be automatic.
Democrats will hold a one-seat majority in each committee, and committee staffs and budgets will remain equal through 2002, said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate's second-ranked Democrat. The committees will decide whether to add a Democrat or subtract a Republican, although Reid said he and others opposed expansions because they thought many of the committees were getting too big.
Lott said Thursday he was designating five GOP senators to work with Democrats on organizational changes. "We bent over backward in my opinion to come up with a power-sharing agreement in January, and we are going to expect the same in return."
The Senate vote on new committee makeup is vulnerable to a filibuster requiring 60 votes to overcome. That gives Republicans a bargaining chip: They could hold up approval of new committee assignments to win concessions on judicial nominations or the legislative schedule.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said there was real potential for a political impasse. "If you think we've had gridlock up to now, watch that one."
When the power-sharing agreement dissolves, committee memberships return to what they were at the end of the last session of congress until the Senate approves a new structure. That opens up one scenario where a committee chairman would be a Democrat but Republicans would hold a majority of members.
The staff for Daschle and Lott will not have to move. The Democratic and Republican leaders have their own offices on the second floor of the Capitol Building, and do not change when there is a transfer of power.
Others will not be so lucky. Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., talking to reporters outside his office, noted that he would soon have to remove the "assistant majority leader" title on the door.
On a larger scale, hundreds of staffers will have to unplug their computers, clean off their desks and move to new offices down the hall or in neighboring office buildings.
The speed and extent of moves will differ from committee to committee. Bob Stevenson, spokesman for the Budget Committee, said current chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and the top Democrat Kent Conrad, D-N.D., agreed to divide up staff and space allowances for the full two years of this session, and the power shift will not cause any personnel upheavals.
He said they may put off any office changes until August or September, when the rooms were scheduled to be redone anyway.
Marvin Simpson of the Senate Superintendent's office said they are still waiting for orders for their "bodies and boxes" moving operation. He said usually, after a shift in power, it takes a couple of months to get everyone in the right place.