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Two-Headed Senate

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With a potential Democratic victory in Washington State, the likelihood of gridlock and bickering looms large

The last time control of the U.S. Senate divided equally between the two parties was in 1881. And it wasn't a pretty sight. Democrats and Republicans each had 37 seats, with two held by independents. The Democrats managed to persuade one of the independents to join their ranks, but then Republicans peeled off the other independent, Senator William Mahone of Virginia, by dangling before him the Agriculture Committee chairmanship and the power to pick the Senate's Sergeant at Arms. Republican Vice President Chester A. Arthur cast the tie-breaking vote so the G.O.P. could take over the chamber. But legislative business quickly ground to a halt when angry Democrats refused to show up for any floor votes.

If Maria Cantwell's 1,953-vote lead over Republican incumbent Senator Slade Gorton survives a recount that begins in Washington this week, and if George W. Bush wins the presidency, the Senate will again be split--this time 50-50. And politics in the world's greatest deliberative body may not be any prettier than it was 119 years ago.

Don't expect any Senators to change their party stripes for a committee chairmanship from the enemy. Democrats have already quietly sniffed for defectors but have found no prospects. The only opportunity for a tilt in their direction would be if the Senate's two oldest Republicans, who are in poor health--South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, 97, and North Carolina's Jesse Helms, 79--suddenly left and the Democratic Governors of their states picked replacements.

Barring that, the Democrats want the Senate treated like community property. Minority leader Tom Daschle will probably meet with majority leader Trent Lott this week to demand that the two sides share power in the chamber. Even if Al Gore ends up President--which would mean Joe Lieberman's giving up his Senate seat, Connecticut's Republican Governor's appointing his replacement, and the G.O.P.'s getting a 51-49 majority--Democrats still want to be considered almost as equals, and Republicans realize they don't have room to run roughshod. "With this narrow margin in the Senate, there's going to have to be bipartisanship," concedes G.O.P moderate Senator Arlen Specter.

Daschle is proposing far more bipartisanship than Lott will ever swallow. The Democratic leader will begin his summit with Lott by demanding that committee membership be split evenly--if that turns out to be the case in the full Senate--and that Democratic vice chairmen serve alongside Republican chairmen. Lott has already ruled that out, and even Democratic Senators say privately they wouldn't be charitable if the tables were turned. The best Daschle will probably get is a one-vote Republican majority on committees instead of the current two, and more influence over legislation that gets to the floor for a vote.

A one-vote Republican majority on committees, however, would give Democrats considerable clout to clog up pet G.O.P legislation, such as cutting taxes and privatizing Social Security. Whether the Senate gets anything done will depend on the relationship between Lott and Daschle. Unlike House Speaker Dennis Hastert and minority leader Richard Gephardt, who are barely on speaking terms, Lott and Daschle have a private phone line so they can bypass aides and talk directly to each other. Even when partisan rancor in the Senate was at its highest this past year, they would drop by each other's Capitol offices regularly to chat. Both men are pragmatists who understand "they've got to make the institution run," says a Democratic Senator.

But with Florida engulfed by a political wildfire, partisan flames are already flaring in the Senate. Lott declared last week that the Florida Supreme Court's ruling that hand-counted ballots must be included in the state total for the presidential race "cannot stand." Daschle joined the highly partisan Gephardt in a statement complaining about "overheated rhetoric and political threats." Pragmatism may be the first casualty if the Senate joins the House in a fight over who will represent Florida as electors.

And the game could get a lot rougher. The new Senators will be sworn in Jan. 3, 17 days before the new President and his running mate take the Oath of Office on Jan. 20. During those 17 days, Gore, as Bill Clinton's Vice President, is still President of the Senate and Lieberman is still a Senator. Gore could cast tie-breaking votes to settle disputes over electors. He could even give Democrats a brief majority so they could oust G.O.P committee chairmen and name their own. Daschle's aides don't expect to engage in that kind of hardball. But then nobody thought the presidency would be snarled in a dozen lawsuits over dimpled chads.


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Cover Date: December 4, 2000

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