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Signs of stormy policy battles ahead


WASHINGTON -- With the tax cut victory behind him, President George W. Bush may face rough sailing for the rest of his agenda because of shifting political winds on Capitol Hill.

The defection of Vermont's Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party puts Democrats at the helm of the Senate.

But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, who is poised to lose his post said he believes the administration is right to stay its course. White House officials say that course includes education reform, defense buildup, free trade and a national energy policy.

"He campaigned on a series of issues that are important. And he has an obligation to follow through on the commitments he made," said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. "But it is not a partisan agenda, it's not a political agenda, it is an agenda that is responsible and right for America."

Senate Democrats see it differently.

"The fact is that the president has governed from the right and has been very partisan," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut.

Power shift in U.S. Congress causes political uncertainty for president's priorities. CNN's Major Garrett reports (May 27)

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The man expected to become the next majority leader has a different set of priorities.

"We've got a lot of good battles we think we may be able to win: education, patients bill of rights, minimum wage, prescription drug benefits," said Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota.

The only issue on both parties' lists is education. The president should have a bipartisan bill next month. But top White House advisers say Democrats such as Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, the soon-to-be chairman of the education committee, could drive the price tag higher.

Republicans are gloomy about other White House priorities. Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma admits "It's going to be a little more difficult now."

In an interview on NBC's "Meet The Press," Daschle said the Bush administration's plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration is dead. He also said that if the tax cut package passed Saturday triggers deficits, "we may want to look at ways at which to look at the tax cut in the future."

"This is great short-term politics. It is disastrous long-term policy," Daschle said of the tax cut. "This is an exploding time bomb. This is going to be $4-to-$5 trillion when it is fully implemented."

The Jeffords defection also raises questions about other potential party defections.

Democratic leadership sources confirm talks with Arizona's John McCain and Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee about leaving the GOP. Also targeted is Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Right now, it's just talk, but it's talk that makes Republicans nervous.

The vice chairwoman of Lott's Senate leadership team, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, said GOP leaders are listening and responding to the criticism they have heard in the wake of Jeffords' departure.

"I think we have to say, 'Look, maybe we're not listening enough. Maybe we haven't brought everyone in to make them feel a part of our team and our effort.' We're going to do that," she said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."

"We're going to try to use this lemon to make lemonade," Hutchison added.

Although it's a long shot, Republicans will try to woo Democrats Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Max Baucus of Montana to their party.

"Some people say, 'Oh my goodness, the Senate majority may change,'" said Lott on ABC's "This Week." "Yeah, well it may change once or twice or more in the next year."

Amid the turmoil, the president will try to seal deals with Democrats on education, defense spending and energy policy. Senior aides say the first two are within reach and energy will be the first big test of Washington's new power structure.

Bush heads Monday to energy-strapped California and will meet later with Gov. Gray Davis. The Bush administration has opposed price caps on power sales to California.

White House Correspondent Major Garrett contributed to this report.

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