"He said, 'Is it going to happen? Is that real?' He seemed surprised."
-- White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, quoted by the New York Times recounting Bush's reaction Tuesday morning to word that Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., was leaving the GOP
The president and his party were still reeling on Thursday as the consequences of Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP came into sharper focus. Sen. Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., began preparing in earnest for his transition from minority leader to majority leader, and Democratic veterans in the Senate dusted off their gavels in preparation for becoming committee chairmen. Daschle, who helped pull Jeffords out of the GOP fold, contacted Bush to let the president know that the Dems plan to fight fair.
Though Democrats have been out of the White House for just a short time, they've been on the bottom of the congressional totem pole in both houses since Newt Gingrich's troops stormed the Capitol in 1994. Now that Daschle has to form a new agenda instead of just criticizing the other party's, he has to balance the concerns of old-line liberal Democrats with those of new-school progressives in setting legislative priorities.
But the new majority may not be much more secure than the old one. With a handful of misfits and malcontents within both parties, some observers warn that Jeffords' jump may not be the last. Another potentially destabilizing factor is the advanced age and ill health of two GOP war horses, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Meanwhile, the conservative press lashed out at the departing Jeffords, while Republican moderates in the Senate, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took swipes at the White House. Though Bush and his team insisted that they had done everything right in the Jeffords debacle, moderates in the GOP warned Bush to keep the party open to ideological debate or be content to watch its political advantage fade. Others say that Republican moderates should start looking for a new political home as their ranks diminish in the GOP.
Business leaders and lobbyists who had established warm and fuzzy relations with Senate Republicans burned up the telephone lines in Washington with panicked calls to GOP leaders after the Jeffords switch. Of the business-friendly initiatives likely to find little enthusiasm in a Democratic-controlled Senate, Bush's recently released energy plan seems particularly vulnerable, and plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- which some GOP moderates had objected to -- may be the first agenda item to be put on the back burner.
Bush's tax cut, in contrast, could get the most benefit from the change in power. Jeffords vowed to stick with the GOP until the tax cut gets to the president's desk, which gives Democrats, even those who strongly oppose elements of the plan, incentive to speed the process. Still, Republicans probably won't make their self-imposed Memorial Day deadline for getting the bill to the president's desk.
Jeffords' departure also greased the gears for the troubled nomination of Ted Olson, who was confirmed as solicitor general on a largely party-line vote Thursday afternoon. With Republicans afraid that other conservative nominees wouldn't get past Daschle and the Democrats, Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., rushed the Olson bid to the Senate floor for a vote. Olson's nomination was stalled last week to allow for additional Democratic investigation of conflicts in his testimony. Though Democrats grumbled, they did not mount a filibuster challenge to the floor vote, in an effort to begin their reign as the majority by choosing their battles wisely.
Another senator seemed content to battle uphill and alone. Of the 47 Democrats voting against Olson, only one objected to the other nominees who were confirmed for Justice Department posts on Thursday afternoon. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., rejected Viet Dinh and Michael Chertoff, casting the lone dissenting ballot in both votes. Coincidentally, those two nominees had previously worked on the investigation of the Whitewater land deal, a scandal that plagued the Clintons throughout their years at the White House.
And don't miss Bush's friends doing damage to his faith-based charity initiative. A Christian activist testifying before Congress about religious charities explained how his ministry converted Jews to Christianity, or helped them become "complete Jews" who believe in the divinity of Jesus. It's just this kind of thing that church-state watchdogs point to when objecting to tax-funded religious programs.
In the business world, a Bush ally from the oil industry is getting bold with Washington insiders. Kenneth Lay, chief of energy giant Enron, has used his White House connections to pressure regulatory officials to give him his way on issues related to Enron. He also is reportedly participating in interviews of candidates for various posts in the administration.
Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney and his team aren't happy with the stink raised over his Monday night donor bash. The party for top GOP contributors took place at Cheney's official residence, which angered campaign finance reformers. Some of his staffers claim that he's having to take the fall for the event, even though it was the Republican National Committee's idea.
The newly independent Jeffords took his grumbling about Bush to the public on Thursday. As he criticized the president's education plan, Jeffords said that Bush will probably end up as a one-term wonder if he doesn't fix his public school reform proposals. Bush suffered insults from overseas as well, with Chinese President Jiang Zemin calling the president "logically unsound, confused and unprincipled, unwise to the extreme" during a Communist Party meeting.
Friday schedule: The president makes a major defense policy statement Friday morning at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Bush then heads to Camp David for the weekend.
-- Alicia Montgomery
This day in Bush history
May 25, 1997: A year and a day after Texas Gov. George W. Bush convened a special committee to overhaul the state's tax system, the Legislature killed his resulting effort to slash property taxes. The governor tried to use his famous bipartisan powers to bring a compromise with Texas Democrats, but failed to strike a deal. Bush insisted that he was not embittered by the defeat, and that he had done the right thing by trying to get the tax cut passed. "I think people are going to say that all of us gave it our best shot," he said. "There was a noble effort."
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