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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Q and A: What the Senate switch means

As Senator Jim Jeffords abandons the Republican Party, US affairs analyst Ben Wright explains the consequences of the move.

What is the impact of Senator Jeffords' defection?

Until Thursday, the Senate had been split 50:50, with Vice-President Dick Cheney, a Republican, casting the deciding vote.

The defection means that the Democrats have now taken control for the first time since 1994.

Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, will replace Republican Trent Lott as the Senate's main power broker. The Democrats will also take over the chairmanship of key Senate committees, which decide the timetable of legislation.

It also represents a huge psychological boost for the Democrats, many of whom believe they were the real victors in last year's election.

The promise of a bi-partisan administration has not materialised and, excluded from both the Senate and the White House, even senior Democrats have been feeling left out.

Now they have a new lease of life to push policies on tax relief, education and the minimum wage, ahead of mid-term elections in 2002.

How powerful will the Democrats be?

As the majority party, the Democrats will take over the chairmanship of each Senate committee. The chairman is responsible for running committee business, deciding what is to be discussed, when and for how long.

Some committees have a monitoring role while others have legislative powers.

It is in these powerful standing committees - including those responsible for the budget, education, the judiciary and the armed services - that Democratic control will have most impact.

Also, while technically equal, membership of the Senate is more prestigious than that of the House.

There are fewer members, just 100, and they serve a longer six-year term.

Cross-party co-operation is much more important in the Senate than it is in the House because to cut off a debate and force a vote one side needs 60 votes, more than a simple majority.

So while Senator Jeffords' defection is significant there is still plenty of room for horse-trading and compromise on the Senate floor.

Which policies could be affected?

The Democrats have been notably cool on some of President Bush's proposals.

The most controversial would have had a difficult ride in Congress anyway, but now their prospects look much, much worse:

  • The proposed $1.35 trillion tax cut over 10 years has been passed by the Senate, but still needs to be confirmed by a joint meeting of Congress.

  • Contentious plans to build an anti-ballistic missile shield against attack by rogue states could be in doubt.

  • So too could President Bush's new energy plan, which includes proposals to for more oil drilling - even in environmentally sensitive areas including Alaska - coal mining and nuclear energy.

  • President Bush could face a difficult ride on education policy too. Senator Ted Kennedy, a passionate and influential Democrat with friends in high places, is expected to take over the chairmanship of the education committee formerly headed by Mr Jeffords.

How much of an obstacle is this to President Bush?

It is a significant hindrance. In addition to controlling Senate business, the Democrats will have a much greater say in the choice of nominees for key diplomatic and political posts, including the Supreme Court.

President Bush is under pressure to appoint conservative right-wingers as members of the Court retire, but this could force him to opt for more moderate candidates rather than risk deadlock in the approval of new appointments..

Has this happened before?

Senator Jeffords' defection is the 16th such move in 20 years, but all but one have been from the Democrats to the Republicans.

The parties will be targeting a number of waverers on either side:

  • The Republicans are expected to target Zell Miller, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, to try to persuade him to jump ship and cancel out the Democrats' advantage.

  • One of the Democrats' top targets is Senator Lincoln Chaffe, from Rhode Island who has been critical of the direction that the Republican party is taking.

  • Democrat number-crunchers are also watching the health of Strom Thurmond, the 98-year old Senator for South Carolina, and a vocal critic of President Bush. He knows all about the pressures of switching sides: He defected from the Democrats to the Republicans in 1964.

Why has he done it?

Senator Jeffords, a 67-year-old former lawyer and navy veteran, is known as a moderate: He was called "Clinton's favourite Republican" because of the number of times he voted with the Democrats.

One view is that he is exacting revenge on the White House which, after he voted against the Administration on tax cuts, did not invite him to a special ceremony last month to honour the "teacher of the year".

That, in spite of the fact that Senator Jeffords is chairman of the education committee and the teacher is a Vermonter.

But he is understood to have been considering the move for months.

It matches the political profile of traditionally-liberal Vermont - a tiny state which has found itself suddenly one of the most powerful in the Union.

Once the heartland of Yankee Republicanism it is now more famous as the home of Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

The majority of Vermonters are registered independents and the state already has an independent member of Congress. It is also where Green Party hopeful Ralph Nader notched up his highest score in last year's presidential race.

Senator Jeffords is not due for re-election until 2006 and, by that time, he may have had enough of the hurly burly of Washington, preferring to swap Capitol Hill for the ski slopes of his home state.

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See also:

24 May 01 | Americas
Senator to quit Republicans
06 Jan 01 | Americas
Senate reaches power-sharing deal
30 Apr 01 | Americas
Who runs the Bush White House?
22 May 01 | Americas
Bush argues for urgent tax cuts
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