Balance tipped against Bush

Loss of GOP Senate could put brakes on conservative agenda

May 25, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Barely four months ago, George W. Bush and the Republicans seized control of the federal government for the first time in nearly half a century.

In a remarkable opening act, in view of the closeness of his election, President Bush held fast to his conservative campaign agenda and successfully pushed through its signature tenet: the largest tax reduction since Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Now, to the dismay of Bush and his stunned allies, Republican government has been suddenly ended, yanked away by the action of one senator. With the defection of Vermont's James M. Jeffords, Bush has been handed a hefty tab for what may turn out to be his biggest legislative achievement.

In explaining why he single-handedly put Democrats back in charge in the Senate, Jeffords said he found himself increasingly at odds with Bush's priorities. In particular, he said, the president's pledge to reform education, an issue of great importance to Jeffords, turned out to be an empty promise, after Bush opted for a big tax cut and not a further spending increase for schools.

"New direction without funding is really no useful direction at all," said Jeffords, describing his dealings with unnamed Republican leaders as "a struggle."

The Vermonter's switch to independent status tips the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats for the first time since 1995 and returns Washington to divided government, which has been the norm for most of the post-World War II era. Democrats will replace Republicans as committee chairmen, and the Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, will become the new traffic cop on the Senate floor, deciding which measures are acted upon and which ones are not.

"It changes completely the complexion of the Bush presidency," said Warren B. Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. "It will make it very difficult for Bush to advance his agenda."

Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, who switched parties six years ago, agreed, calling Bush "the big loser." The president, he predicted, will have to moderate his stance on everything from energy policy and education to missile defense.

As a result of Jeffords' decision to bolt the party:

Bush could find it much more difficult, if not impossible, to appoint hard-line conservatives to federal judgeships or win confirmation for his more controversial nominees, such as John D. Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The potential nomination of Peter D. Keisler of Bethesda, the Bush administration's choice for a "Maryland seat" on the federal appeals court, may be blocked for the foreseeable future.

The business community, which generously supported Bush's candidacy, had put off its demands, at the administration's urging, for new business tax breaks so the president's tax plan could gain approval first; now a major tax cut for business seems unlikely before the 2002 election, barring another, unexpected switch in the Senate that would return control to the Republicans.

Democrats are now expected to advance items from their agenda, such as a patients' rights measure and prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients, which had been sidelined by Republicans.

The loss of Senate control, which stung GOP senators grown accustomed to the perquisites of committee chairmanships, could lead to changes in the party's leadership. The potential target: Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican leader, who will automatically be demoted to minority leader once Democrats take charge.

Senior Republican senators up for re-election next year or in 2004 might choose to retire if they conclude that there is no immediate prospect for regaining control. Among those who could leave: Sens. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Jeffords denied that he was abandoning the party because of any personal slight from Bush or administration aides. But others have pointed fingers of blame at the White House and Republican leaders for "losing" Jeffords.

Bush and his team are being criticized for putting too much emphasis on blind loyalty and for arrogantly playing hardball with members of their own party when they could not afford to lose even one Republican in an evenly divided Senate.

In a sharply worded statement that called on fellow Republicans to "grow up," the GOP's best-known maverick, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, blasted what he said was the party's short-sighted mistreatment of dissenters.

"Perhaps those self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty will learn to respect honorable differences among us, learn to disagree without resorting to personal threats, and recognize that we are a party large enough to accommodate something short of strict unanimity on the issues of the day," McCain said, without naming names.

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