WASHINGTON - Maryland's two Democratic senators prepared yesterday to assume the Senate's most influential positions on housing and urban policy in the upheaval that resulted from Sen. James M. Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican Party and thus throw control of the Senate to the Democrats.
The formal shift of power is still at least a few days away. But hours after Jeffords' announcement, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes began to outline his plans as the likely new chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. He said one of his prime objectives will be to expand the committee's oversight role, and that one of the first areas he wants to investigate is predatory lending.
Even before Sarbanes addressed his first news conference as the presumptive committee leader, Maryland's other senator, Barbara A. Mikulski, as a member of the Democratic leadership team, faced cameras and reporters with the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, who will be majority leader, and Harry Reid of Nevada, who will be majority whip.
Mikulski's real power will derive from her new role as chairman of two subcommittees: the appropriations subcommittee that allocates money for veterans affairs, housing, urban development and independent agencies; and the health subcommittee on aging.
"By fortuitous circumstance," Sarbanes said, he and Mikulski will likely lead both the Senate committee that helps write urban policy and the Senate subcommittee that helps set funding to implement those policies. The two will help parcel out Community Development Block Grants and economic development funds as well as oversee the agencies that manage housing and urban programs.
"This gives us a real opportunity to advance that agenda, both nationally and for Maryland," Sarbanes said.
Mikulski cautioned that Democrats would have to find creative solutions to problems that do not require huge new sources of money because President Bush and the Republicans have set a budget that leaves little room for spending after the $1.35 trillion tax cut.
"The sobering reality is that the Bush tax bill and the Bush budget have really shackled the economic resources that we would need to do the kind of robust agenda we would like," Mikulski said. She pledged that part of her mission would be to block proposed Bush spending cuts, such as to the programs that finance the Chesapeake Bay clean-up, which would come through her subcommittee.
As chairwoman of the subcommittee on aging, Mikulski said, she would look into "new ways of thinking" about how to help families with the care of elderly relatives.
In the wake of Jeffords' bombshell, senators of both parties are calculating the new opportunities that await them or assessing how much they have lost.
Democratic committee posts remain subject to change. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, must decide whether to take the helm of the Judiciary Committee instead of the Foreign Relations Committee, on which he now serves. Chairmanships are awarded on the basis of seniority, and the most senior senators choose first.
If Biden does take Judiciary, it is possible that Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, would then choose to take over the Banking Committee, thus keeping Sarbanes out of that post. Under this scenario, Sarbanes could then take Foreign Relations.
The Judiciary Committee could be the site of some of the most far-reaching effects of the power shift. Democrats will be able to block the confirmation of judges and Supreme Court nominees if Bush makes highly conservative choices.
"We will not have nominations of right-wing after right-wing after right-wing judges," declared Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "Judges will have to be moderate. The president will get some he wants, we will get some we want, and there will be a compromise that overall the bench will be a moderate bench.
"The same will happen on other issues," Schumer predicted. "In energy, we will not have just supply side; it will be supply and demand. Everything will be moderated and moved to the middle."
As the Democrats were contemplating their new agendas as leaders, Republicans were confronted with the grimmer task of sorting through the wreckage of their six-year run in the majority.
"The consequences are seismic," said Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican. "The whole government has shifted."
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said he and other Republicans were "trying to find the survivors, patch up the wounded and figure out where we go from here."
Mindful of their trauma, Daschle adopted a solemn tone, acknowledging that he was aware of the new burdens and responsibilities that await him - with only a one-vote majority.