Senate Democrats return to Washington and to power
By CNN Capitol Hill Producer Dana Bash
WASHINGTON -- The Senate returns Tuesday to a political reversal of fortunes -- with Republicans in the minority and Democrats holding the reins of power for the first time since they lost control of the chamber in the 1994 midterm elections.
Returning from Memorial Day break, the senators will spend much of the day in closed-door discussions on power reorganization.
The official changing of power is to occur Wednesday morning, at which time the Democrats are expected to offer a resolution for Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia to replace Strom Thurmond, R-South Carolina, as Senate President Pro Tempore.
Once approved, Byrd will move into the chair presiding over the Senate and recognize Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, as the new majority leader.
With the swing in power, all ranking Democrats on committees immediately become chairmen, and GOP chairmen become ranking members.
Because of a power-sharing agreement made before the current Senate, the committees revert to their makeup in the previous term until a new organizational resolution is passed. This means the 11 freshmen senators will temporarily be without assignments.
Jim Jeffords, the maverick senator from Vermont, tilted the evenly divided Senate in favor of the Democrats by leaving the Republican Party after 27 years of public service to become an Independent.
Jeffords has been invited to the Democrats' policy lunch Tuesday, although it's unclear whether he will attend.
Later Tuesday night, Senate workers will unscrew Jeffords' desk from the Republican side of the floor and move it to the Democratic side, outfitted with a new microphone unit. The desk will likely be located between Sens. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, toward the back of the chamber.
Republicans plan a series of meetings Tuesday to discuss exactly what they will ask for in reorganization negotiations with Democrats and how they will respond to the Democrats' first power-shift proposal, which includes a one-seat majority on committees. Most Republicans believe that offer is somewhat reasonable, according to outgoing Majority Leader Trent Lott's office.
Lott has appointed five GOP senators to negotiate with Democrats: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Phil Gramm of Texas, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Daschle plans to negotiate on his own.
A Democratic leadership aide says Democrats intend to try to offer their organizational resolution after taking over the majority Wednesday, but do not expect Republicans to let it go through if negotiations are not complete.
Republicans emphasize it took from Thanksgiving through January 6 to reorganize the 50-50 Senate, and that the latest transition will take time.
The key demand Republicans will make relates to presidential nominations, sources say.
Republicans want the full Senate to be able to vote on nominees even if they have been voted down by a Senate committee. Traditionally, nominations that fail in committee are dead.
This is a crucial issue for Republicans because they believe Democratic committee chairmen will use their power to derail presidential nominations.
Republicans are also concerned about other organizational issues, including how subpoena power in committees will work.
Colleagues in the House were keeping close tabs on the situation.
Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Oklahoma, who is the GOP conference chairman, said the shift "won't affect what we do in the House," but it could impact how long it takes for the Senate "to get things done."
"In the Senate, it obviously, procedurally will make things a little more tricky," Watts told CNN.
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