The one group that celebrated an unqualified victory was a coalition of centrist senators from both parties who have tried for years to bridge the gap when there have been differences between the president and leaders of the opposition party but have seldom succeeded.
"I think that we have shown today that it is, in fact, possible to change the political culture of Washington," said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who is a veteran of past efforts on behalf of budgets, health care and campaign finance reform.
"A vote of 65 to 35 for a budget is a significant change from the way business has been done in the past, and I think it does represent a new day of cooperation between both parties," Breaux said.
Breaux had offered a compromise proposal Wednesday, initially supported by several of his fellow Democrats and by one Republican, Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island. It would have set the tax-cut total at $1.25 trillion over 10 years.
It appeared to be just another failed Breaux effort until his allies were joined at a news conference by Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican. Jeffords had been negotiating with the White House to win more money for education of disabled children but had been rebuffed in his demand that such spending be made automatic and not require annual congressional approval.
"When I saw Jeffords suddenly emerge from behind the blue curtains, I knew that was the turning point," Chafee recalled.
Shortly afterward, Jeffords and Chafee joined the Democrats to vote for an amendment that took $447 billion from the proposed tax-cut money and directed it toward education and debt reduction.
Despite another day of appeals from his Republican colleagues and from Vice President Dick Cheney, Jeffords would not relent. By Thursday, the White House refocused its attention on some moderate Democrats.
Several were thought to be willing to vote for a tax cut as high as $1.4 trillion. But the Republicans decided that the risk of alienating other lawmakers in the process might be too high.
"It's like we're almost to the finish line, and we have to decide, do we try to rush through and get the highest tax cut we can and bruise some feelings along the way, or do we just leave the budget the way it is and try to fix it in conference with the House?" Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, said just before the White House and Republican leaders decided to back the smaller tax cut.
Besides Breaux, the Democrats who voted for the budget blueprint included Max Baucus of Montana, his party's leader on the tax-writing Finance Committee; Evan Bayh of Indiana; Jean Carnahan of Missouri; Thomas R. Carper of Delaware; Max Cleland of Georgia; John Edwards of North Carolina; Dianne Feinstein of California; Tim Johnson of South Dakota; Herb Kohl of Wisconsin; Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana; Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas; Ben Nelson of Nebraska; and Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey.
Also voting with them was Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, the one Democrat who had committed to Bush's full $1.6 trillion tax cut.
"What appeared to be an intense partisan fight has now broadened into a coalition that is dedicated to serving neither extreme and finding a sensible middle," Torricelli said.