Republicans Tuesday said they would demand fair play for President Bush's nominees and fight to keep his agenda at the forefront on the eve of a historic shift in power — as incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle pledged Tuesday to "reach out and create bipartisan coalitions" on health care and other issues when his party takes control for the first time in six years.
"We should have a war of ideas, and we should have a full campaign for the Senate in 2002," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the outgoing majority leader.
At the White House, President Bush welcomed a diverse group of lawmakers for a discussion of education. "We can still get things done" despite the switch, he said.
Thanks to Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' decision to leave the GOP and vote with the other side, Tuesday will end six years of Republican control of the Senate. The Democrats officially take over Wednesday morning with an effective majority of 50-49, plus Jeffords.
Officials said that overnight Jeffords' desk would be unbolted from its spot on the floor on the GOP side of the Senate chamber and reattached on the Democratic side — a move of only a few feet that signified a major shift in political power.
The changeover will be the first time in history that the Senate has switched hands in a meaningful way during a session. The Republican majority which ends Tuesday began in January of 1995, after the GOP rout in the 1994 mid-term elections.
"I'd anticipate you'd see the normal course of events on the floor on the education bill," Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Lott, said Monday.
But the backroom dealings will be intense, as Lott meets with the GOP caucus to plan negotiations with Democrats over committee rosters and possible strategies to safeguard Bush's judicial nominees.
Those negotiators may also meet with Daschle, D-S.D., who opposes protecting Bush's nominees.
The Republicans' leverage in negotiations stems from the rule that the entire chamber must approve a resolution revamping committee rosters to reflect the Democratic majority. Until that happens, committee memberships revert to the end of the last Congress, over which the GOP had control. Because of vacancies caused by retirements and election defeats, that gives Republicans majorities on eight major committees and Democrats one, with seven tied.
Fresh from a weeklong Memorial Day break, Democratic and GOP senators will have separate lunches, where conversations will no doubt focus on the new Senate. At the GOP gathering, there may be continued recriminations over Jeffords' defection.
Though Democrats will take the majority and with it more control over what is debated, the Senate will essentially remain the precariously balanced body it has been all year. As a result, Daschle acknowledged, both parties' moderates will continue to play a crucial role, as they did in last month's passage of Bush's $1.35 trillion, 11-year tax cut.
"It is critical," Daschle said. "If we're going to govern, we have to govern from the middle."
Underlining Daschle's new clout, he and Bush planned to have dinner at the White House on Thursday, said a senior White House official and a Daschle aide.
That get-together will come as two-thirds of Americans say Bush should focus on compromising with Democrats rather than pushing his own agenda, according to an ABC-Washington Post poll released on Monday.
Those polled also said, by 41 percent to 20 percent, that the change in Senate control will be good for the country; 38 percent said it will make no difference. The poll of 1,004 adults was taken May 31 through Sunday and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Daschle has said that under his leadership, the Senate will first complete its work on a bipartisan education bill backed by Bush. After that, it will turn to a bill expanding patients' rights cosponsored by Democrats and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Later plans are still being solidified. But Democrats say they are contemplating early efforts to boost the minimum wage, create prescription-drug coverage for Medicare recipients and revamp election procedures.
Democrats will craft their own energy legislation, focusing more than Bush did on conservation, energy efficiency and short-term help for consumers. Gone will be Lott's hopes of pushing Bush's energy proposal, which focused on boosting supplies, through the Senate by July 4.
"There will still be some production incentives, but it won't be so dominant," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who will chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Senate Democrats also are envisioning hearings by the Governmental Affairs Committee on whether the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has adequately overseen electricity prices; the Senate Judiciary Committee on recent FBI mishaps such as the spying case against former agent Robert Hanssen; and by an investigations subcommittee on rising gasoline prices.
Despite the historic nature of the transition, the Democrats' moment will arrive with little fanfare.
Under current plans, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the longest-serving Senate Democrat, will gavel the body into session on Wednesday. He will recognize Daschle to speak as majority leader, and the Democrats' reign will begin.
At the moment Daschle is recognized as majority leader, the top Democratic members on each committee will become chairmen.
The Associated Press contributed to this report