Democrats May Control Senate (Briefly)

When the Senate convenes in January, Democrats will likely enjoy a unique 17-day tenure in the majority, but party leaders insist they won't capitalize on their brief advantage.

The Constitution calls for the new Congress to convene on January 3. When it does, it will be split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, assuming that a recount confirms that Democrat Maria Cantwell narrowly ousted GOP Sen. Slade Gorton in Washington state.

But the next president will not be sworn in until January 20. That would leave Democrats with an edge for 17 days because Democrat Al Gore would still be vice president until then and have the constitutional authority to break tie votes in the Senate.

Barring unexpected vacancies, Republicans are sure to regain control of the Senate when the 17 days expire. If George W. Bush is sworn in as president, Vice President Dick Cheney could then break any ties. And if Gore is sworn in, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., would become vice president and his state's GOP governor would appoint a Republican to replace him as senator, giving the GOP a 51-49 edge.

The GOP, therefore, will be able to retaliate for or undo anything Democrats might achieve during their temporary leadership. For that reason and others, Democrats say they won't flex their muscle.

"I believe it's important to start off the new Congress on the right foot, to create a more conducive environment for better relationships" between the parties, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Tuesday. "I don't think you achieve that by attempting to do something that might generate a short-term advantage" but at the same time create partisan friction, he said.

"I'm pleased to hear them say that," said Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, a GOP leader. "Obviously, if that were attempted ... we would just find ourselves in gridlock. I don't think Democratic or Republican senators want to start the new year in a state of gridlock."

Top Senate Democrats will continue to demand parity, or something close to it, when it comes to permanently organizing committees and setting the Senate's agenda during the two years of the incoming 107th Congress. That will be settled in negotiations with Republican leaders. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said earlier this month that he envisioned discussing with Democrats how committee memberships would be divided and "working with them on the agenda" of the Senate. But he added, "I don't think they can expect to run the place."

Thanks to the brief advantage, Senate parliamentarians say Daschle would be recognized as the majority leader during debates, said Daschle spokeswoman Ranit Schmelzer. While that ordinarily gives the majority leader enormous power in setting the agenda, Daschle said he would not use that authority to ram anything through the chamber.

"I'm not anticipating seizing the moment," Daschle said.

Even if they wated to, Senate Democrats' ability to use their muscle during that period would be limited.

A Democratic effort to control the Senate for the interval would plainly contradict their oft-stated calls for bipartisanship in the new Congress and weaken their attempt to appear conciliatory in the narrowly divided Congress.

In addition, Republicans could filibuster any Democratic attempt during the 17 days to set up committees, forcing Democrats to garner 60 votes that they do not have.

As Democrats have said for some time, their 17-day period in the Senate majority should let them block any GOP effort to invalidate Florida's presidential electoral votes should they go for Gore.

Under law, Congress can invalidate any electoral votes by simple majorities of both the House and Senate when Congress formally counts those votes in early January. With Gore available to break a tie, the Senate would be unlikely to block electoral votes for Gore.

If there is an impasse between the House and Senate on electoral votes, it falls to the House of Representatives to select the next president.

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