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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Experts quizzed about the power shift in the US Senate
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Control of the US Senate has passed to the Democratic Party, bringing about a shake-up of the country's politics.

The defection of a Republican senator, James Jeffords, gave the Democrats a majority of one. With that slim advantage came control of all committees and of the Senate's agenda.

Now the more conservative aspects of President George W Bush's legislative agenda look unlikely to get congressional approval.

Jockeying for position has begun. Republican senators are pressing for some type of mechanism to prevent Democratic-led committees blocking President Bush's nominees and legislation.

But are they likely to get it? How will the Democrats exercise their newly found power? Are we heading towards compromise or gridlock?

Our Washington correspondent Rob Watson put your questions to Allan Lichtman, professor of history at the American University, and Republican pollster Christopher Ingram, in a live forum.


Highlights of transcript


Newshost:

Hello and welcome. I am Rob Watson, BBC Washington correspondent and the topic is the dramatic change in the control of the Senate. With me to discuss this political earthquake is Allan Lichtman of American University and Republican pollster, Chris Ingram.

The first question is from Francoise Gerrard, France asks: Call me ignorant, but how on earth is this democracy in action? How can a country have a President from one party but have a majority of another party in the Senate? Surely the result will be legislative gridlock and a disservice to the public who voted in the election?


Allan Lichtman:

First of all, divided government is kind of built into the American constitution which has checks and balances among the different branches of government - quite different from a parliamentary system. We separately elect the Senate, the House the lower chamber and the president of the United States and we quite often in recent history have had divided government. Ronald Regan for all his victories as a president never had unified Republican control over both Houses of Congress. I do think that the questioner is probably right though. There is a fair chance there will be gridlock and it will be very difficult either for the Democrats or for Bush to press their agenda. This will test the President and the Senate - can they compromise and get something done.


Newshost:

Chris, the American people seem to like divided government don't they?


Christopher Ingram:

They do. They say they don't but they do when they go into the voting booth and in fact they like gridlock. It is healthy for our democracy as well. I would say that it is a testament to our democracy, our constitution and all forms of our government that we can have this type of disruption that could cause civil war in other countries and yet here in the United States we have a nice peaceful transition and everyone is all smiles.

Now back behind closed doors they are probably saying some rather unpleasant things about one another on occasion but for the most part it is very civil and I think it is a great test to our system.


Allan Lichtman:

Right now I think the Democrats are smiling broader smiles than the Republicans.


Newshost:

The second question is from Alma Johnston, Boston, USA. She asks: How do you think this situation will compare to the opposite situation during Clinton's Presidency when the Republicans had control in the Senate and tried to block his legislative agenda?


Christopher Ingram:

Again we have a situation where it is very close. One thing I think is very important to point out about what happened here in the last few weeks is while Senator Jeffords is now an independent, the actual make-up of the Senate is the same. So the votes really aren't going to change so much. What is most significant is obviously the committee change and who is in control of those committees and whether or not certain legislation will be brought up. Or as Allan indicated earlier, the judicial appointments - that is going to be a serious challenge now for President Bush.

But as a whole I don't think you are going to see a whole lot of change in ultimate floor votes in the US Senate.


Newshost:

Do you think he will have a tougher time than Clinton in dealing with a Senate of a different colour?


Allan Lichtman:

I don't think he will have a tougher time than Clinton - Clinton had a very tough time during his second term. There are two models coming out of the Clinton administration. One is the 1996 model, which is a very positive model where the Republican Congress - and they had both houses for much of the Clinton term. The model is Clinton and the Republicans in Congress came together to compromise. Clinton and the Democrats got minimum wage legislation that they had been seeking for some time and Republicans got a version of welfare reform that they had been pushing for. There was quite a bit of legislative accomplishment in 1996. That can happen again because on things like a patients Bill of Rights and education there is ground for compromise.


Christopher Ingram:

Certainly and I think it is going to be obvious to all politicians of either political stripe that they all need to be jockeying toward the centre if they have any prospects for getting re-elected in 2002 or for the presidential race of 2004.


Newshost:

Peter, USA asks: Now that the Democrats control the Senate, does this mean Bush will be forced to moderate somewhat?


Allan Lichtman:

Absolutely. I think one of the stunning things about the Bush administration is you have this election decided by a busload of folks in Florida and Bush governed like he had a 10 million vote majority and was stunningly successful by the way. He got his No. 1 priority - this huge tax cut. But I do think now if he wants to get much more done he is going to have to move towards the centre and has given some signals that he will do so.


Newshost:

Chris is going to have to moderate?


Christopher Ingram:

Most definitely. There is no way that the president is going to get any more of his legislative items through a Congress that is controlled by a Democrat Senate unless he is willing to make compromises. Again that is what the American people want - politics is all about compromise. As a Republican I am not happy about what happened but as an American citizen I think it is good because we will have more discourse and discussion about various policies and proposals that are being considered and hopefully the net result will be better legislation for all of us.


Newshost:

The next question is from Robert del Valle, USA. He asks: It is misleading for Mr Jeffords to call himself "independent". For all intents and purposes hasn't he effectively made himself the most powerful man in the Senate?


Allan Lichtman:

By moving as an independent, he has given himself tremendous latitude for manoeuvring. He is voting with the Democrats but of course at some time in the future he could turn and vote with the Republicans. It is a knife-edge. This small band of moderates - right leaning Democrats and left leaning Republicans do hold the balance of power in the Senate.


Newshost:

The next question is from Faramarz, USA. He asks: Surely this is only good if the Democrats have the guts to stand up to the Right-wing agenda of this appointed administration? Last year the whole world watched the American presidency get stolen by a group of shameless right wing judges who decided that their vote meant more than millions of us. Now maybe the Senate will block any more such judges taking office.


Christopher Ingram:

I disagree with all three points. We can start with the election and go on down the line.


Newshost:

But on this judicial issue, do you think they will block ideological judges they don't like the look of?


Christopher Ingram:

I think if Bush were to present some very strict conservatives to the courts they would end up being blocked and that is why they were very concerned in trying to get a provision that would allow those nominees to have a floor vote regardless of whatever committee actions was taken - which I don't think yet has been decided but it doesn't look like it's working in the Republican's favour at this point.

What it is really going to mean is Bush is going to have to send up nominees who are more palatable to the Democrats and the not the strict constitutionalists and very conservative members that he might have otherwise appointed.


Newshost:

Why is it important this issue of judges whether they are Republicans or Democrats?


Allan Lichtman:

Remember we have checks and balances in the United States and the three branches of government each have independent powers. The judiciary has tremendous powers because we are a constitutional system and the judges are the final word on the constitution and they are appointed for life. Just to give one simple example - as you know the abortion issue is one of tremendous controversy in this country and many of those who are pro-choice fear that if Bush were able to appoint two or three new supreme court justices they might overturn the constitutional decision - Rowe v. Wade that provides abortion rights.


Newshost:

Mike, Amarillo, USA asks: Does this shift in power now mean that we can now honour the Kyoto Agreement and our other responsibilities that President Bush has tried to shy away from?


Christopher Ingram:

Not necessarily. Obviously the President has taken a little bit of heat from his position on that issue. But it definitely means that Bush's decisions on Kyoto and various other treaties that he might have liked to have taken to change policy from the previous administration are going to get a second look and it is not going to be as easy for him to take a different course. On that particular matter it is difficult to say exactly what is going to happen.


Allan Lichtman:

One of the key changes when we went from Clinton to Bush was that Bush has signalled and now proven that he was going to take a much more unilateral approach to American foreign policy. We see it in the repudiation of Kyoto, we see it in his pushing for a missile defence against the objections of many of the allies. The President has tremendous latitude in foreign policy. He is going to be checked and criticised but a basic decision like not going forward with the Kyoto accords is not going to be reversed simply because Democrats have control of the committees. It is the same number of votes in the Senate.


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