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A Whole New Ballgame

With the Democrats ready to take charge of the Senate following Sen. James Jeffords’ defection from the GOP, the legislative direction of Congress is in for a major shift.

Jeffords’ switch will give the Democrats control of the Senate floor and the powerful committee chairmanships. As a result, President Bush and Senate Republicans now face an uphill battle to get their agenda through Congress.

Here’s a look at what may be affected legislatively:

  • Judicial Nominees: The Democrats were already planning fights over several upcoming Bush nominees for federal judgeships. Now, as the Democrats take control of the Judiciary Committee, either under Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont or Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, it's much more likely that the more conservative nominees will be voted down in committee.

    Judiciary Committee member Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday: "We will not have nominations of right-wing after right-wing after right-wing judges."

    Meantime, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who will become the committee’s ranking Republican after the power shift, holds out hope for bipartisanship. "I really believe that they’ll treat President Bush’s nominees as I treated President Clinton’s. There should be no real argument because I treated them well."

  • Education: The bottom line here is money. The education package that was recently finalized "was generally acceptable to Democrats" except for the dollar figure, says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

    Jeffords, who heads the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Democrat Ted Kennedy, who's likely to take his place, were both extremely outspoken about the package, saying that spending on certain education programs was too low.

    And while Rothenberg says the Democrats won't get everything they’re asking for, "the weight of the Democratic position is much heavier."

  • Health Care: Soon-to-be Majority Leader Thomas Daschle said Thursday that behind education, "The second bill [that will get to the Senate floor] will be the Patients’ Bill of Rights."

    Democratic plans for HMO reform and prescription drugs will also come to the forefront.

    Although Jeffords chaired the health care committee as a Republican, with the Democrats in the majority, they will now have more members on the panel, making it easier for them to move their bills through, and quash Republican proposals.

  • Environment & Energy: With Jeffords promised the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., poised to take over the Energy Committee, the direction of the national debate on energy and the environment will change. Democrats will switch the focus from energy production to conservation and alternative energy sources.

    In addition, Republican plans to have an energy bill by the Fourth of July will most likely be delayed. And President Bus's proposal to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is already in trouble, may now be sunk.

  • Tax Cuts: Even though the Senate just passed an 11-year, $1.35 trillion tax bill, future tax cuts are in serious doubt. While Republicans have talked about introducing other tax cut measures this year, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who's in line to take over the Finance Committee, said those bills are now in question.

    Bear in mind, the Democrats will not be able to take full control of President Bush's agenda, simply because their Senate majority is slim and the Republicans still have control of the White House and the House of Representatives.

    But Jeffords’ defection from the Republicans handed the Democrats a major bargaining chip that they didn’t have without a majority. Now, Rothenberg points out, "Bush will have to negotiate with the Democrats."

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