WASHINGTON - Democrats took control of the Senate last night for the first time in six years, gaining a razor-thin majority that will allow them to alter or thwart President Bush's proposals but probably not advance bold initiatives of their own without Republican help.
Even before the shift of power from the Republicans was official, the Democrats moved swiftly to begin putting their stamp on education, health care and energy policy, as well as to assert greater control over nominations to the federal judiciary.
"Our hope is not necessarily to move a purely ideological agenda, but one that enjoys bipartisan support and ideas right from the beginning," said Tom Daschle, the 53-year-old South Dakota Democrat who became Senate majority leader last night after 22 years in Congress.
"I would hope that could show a real difference in both the direction we hope to take the Senate agenda, as well as the tone."
The Democrats began flexing their muscle by demanding more money for education and by placing legislation that would make it easier to sue managed health care companies ahead of Bush's energy proposals, some of which Daschle has declared all but dead.
Democrats have also pledged to push for speedy action to provide a prescription drug benefit for Medicare and to raise the minimum wage.
The reorganization of the committees - in which the new Democratic chairmen now have power to draft legislation, conduct hearings and approve or reject Bush's choices for the judiciary and other posts - remained stalled.
Republicans are demanding, as part of any agreement, a procedure that guarantees Bush's nominees a vote before the full Senate.
Bush was quick to acknowledge the new reality. He convened a meeting at the White House yesterday on both education and health care issues with Republican as well as Democratic members, and pointedly included Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont.
It was Jeffords' decision to quit the Republican Party and become an independent that caused the sudden shift of Senate control.
With Jeffords' defection, the Senate is now made up of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent who votes with the Democrats on organizational matters.
"Although the structure of the Senate may have been altered somewhat, we still can get things done in a way that's positive for America," Bush said before the White House meeting.
The new Senate arithmetic seemed to be reflected in the president's social schedule as well. Daschle, who has not met personally with Bush in months, was invited to dinner at the White House tomorrow night.
Last night's dinner guest at the White House was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who battled Bush for the Republican presidential nomination last year and has recently been wooed by Democrats who hope he, too, will bolt party ranks.
Senate Republicans chose yesterday to put the best face on their return to the minority, noting that Senate rules are so loose that it is difficult to truly control the agenda without a filibuster-proof majority of at least 60 votes. Further, they noted, with a Republican president, they have the added leverage of Bush's veto pen.
"The majority is better, but you also can accomplish an awful lot [in the minority] if you have a good plan and if you take advantage of the opportunity and if you have a president that you can work with, like we do in President Bush," said Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican and outgoing majority leader who is now minority leader. "So we're going to find a way to get things done for our country."
Lott has noticeably toned down his rhetoric since he sent a memo last weekend to fellow Republican senators, urging them to go to "war" with the Democrats in hopes of regaining their majority in the 2002 elections. The memo was interpreted by many of Lott's fellow Republicans as a way of inoculating himself against any challenge to his leadership post.
Under the terms laid out by Jeffords when he announced his party switch two weeks ago, the shift of control occurred at the close of Senate business last night.
To signify the change, Jeffords' 19th-century Senate desk will be unbolted from the floor on the Republican side of the chamber this morning and moved across the aisle so he can sit with the Democrats.
All smiles at the White House yesterday, Jeffords made clear that he was pleased by the Democrats' insistence that Bush add enough extra money to the education reform bill to provide full funding for the disability programs that have been his top priority.
"This was a most reassuring moment," Jeffords said. "We came together and began to understand how much we had in common, and that we would all be working together toward a common goal to help the kids.
"I am sure now that when we meet in changing circumstances, this is one area where we're going to move forward rapidly to get a good bill."