BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : DECEMBER 18, 2000 ISSUE
NEWS: ANALYSIS & COMMENTARY

Pockets of Power in the Senate
A 50-50 split could give rise to agenda-driven coalitions

In more than 200 years, only once has the Senate found itself evenly divided along party lines. It was 1881, and for nine months, the Senate was rocked by resignations, party-switchers, and accusations of bribery as Democrats and Republicans sought to increase their numbers and gain the upper hand.

With Senate Republicans and Democrats likely to be evenly split again, the hunt for power is on. And considering the messy end to the Presidential race, the odds of a bipartisan truce among party leaders seem long. But many Senators, either out of frustration with years of partisan gridlock or in recognition of the public's divided will and distaste for bickering, are considering a different path. They're looking to form alliances on issues ranging from protecting the budget surplus to expanding health care and reforming public education. These mini-caucuses are likely to form among Senators because of shared experiences and policy interests. No matter who is the President, ''these coalitions are life and death for any legislation,'' says Marshall Wittman, a political analyst with the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.

In sheer numbers, Republicans will continue to hold a slight edge, though if George W. Bush is in the Oval Office, that majority would vest solely in Vice-President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote. And while Trent Lott (R-Miss.) will continue as Majority Leader, his political clout has shrunk. The Senate, unlike the House, operates on the basis of consensus. Senate rules, for example, require a super-majority of 60 votes to bring almost any measure to a floor vote. The result? Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) both need to borrow at least 10 votes from one another to accomplish much of anything.

If there's one thing that can be accomplished with 50 votes, it's gridlock. But many Republicans learned from their four-seat loss on Nov. 7 that inaction and partisan sniping don't play well back home. As the majority, they fear another beating in upcoming mid-term elections if they don't pass long-promised measures, such as a seniors' drug benefit and a patients' bill of rights. The GOP also must defend 20 Senate seats to the Democrats' 14 in 2002. ''The alternative [to bipartisanship] is gridlock,'' says Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). ''It puts every incumbent at risk.''

For the Democrats, swelling ranks bring a different set of challenges. The party's Senate freshmen are spread across the political spectrum, from Mark Dayton of Minnesota on the left to Delaware's Thomas R. Carper on the right. ''The problem will be keeping all your frogs in the wheelbarrow,'' says one Senate Democratic aide. Lott and Daschle have risen above the partisan fray before, but despite talk of a new spirit of cooperation, ''it doesn't look promising,'' Daschle concedes. Instead, watch for a handful of small power centers to emerge:

-- The Mavericks: McCain will lead this populist team, which is gaining in political clout as his status grows. A year ago, McCain was one of his party's least-popular members. But after losing the GOP nomination to Bush, he spent the rest of 2000 stumping and raising money for fellow Republicans. Now McCain has a national constituency, and the party owes him a huge debt.

Already, as Commerce Committee Chairman, McCain is pledging to accept an equal number of Dems on his panel and to evenly split the committee's budget and staff. Expect the mavericks to be among the first to buck the party leadership by trying again to ban unlimited soft-money contributions, which Lott and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) kept bottled up this year. McCain's chances are greatly improved with the addition of four Democrats. He and fellow reformers Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) also will move to cut pork-barrel spending and reduce corporate welfare. And this group could be a key ally to Bush if he pushes a military reform agenda.

-- The Go-Go Governors: While they number only eight, these ex-state chief executives already are mulling how they might influence the agenda. Party affiliation aside, they have much in common. The guvs tend to be fiscally conservative and fiercely protective of the surplus. They are more likely to lean toward a states' rights point of view on issues such as welfare reform and education.

Because this group is accustomed to working with sharply divided state legislatures, it is more likely to agitate for results rather than political point-scoring. Expect ex-guvs like newcomer George Allen (R.-Va.) and Zell Miller (D-Ga.) to try to broker a deal on education that blends Democratic demands for more school construction and teacher hiring with the GOP's insistence on teacher testing and more local control over spending.

-- The Tech Team: The tech industry's leading advocate, Michigan Republican Spencer Abraham, suffered a narrow loss to Representative Debbie Stabenow. But former RealNetworks Inc. (RNWK) exec Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) will be quick to step into Abraham's shoes, even as a first-year Senator. Other allies, such as Senator Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who played a lead role on legislation to protect tech companies from Y2K liability lawsuits, could gain in influence. Tech leaders say they'll look to Senators John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to carry their water on trade liberalization. And McCain will lead the charge to extend the moratorium on Internet taxation, which expires next October.

-- The Ladies' League: Women will number an unprecedented baker's dozen next year, with the arrival of four new Senators, including Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), the group's senior member, hosted a coffee for the 13 women Senators on Dec. 6, the first of many informal meetings they expect to hold. These powerful voices will ensure that a host of measures to help working families finally starts moving through the Senate, especially with Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expected to land a coveted Finance panel seat. But they'll also bear down on such issues as private Social Security accounts and military spending, where debate is now male-dominated. ''None of us will be back-benchers,'' vows Mikulski.

-- The Centrists: Also known as the Snowe-Breaux caucus, this group of some 20 fiscal and social moderates could be the Senate's best chance to avoid gridlock. Already, Bush has contacted Breaux for ideas on how to pull the parties together. The centrists will be a floating coalition that will work together on issues such as estate-tax repeal and military readiness. The group will oppose broad, across-the-board tax cuts and big spending increases.

Breaux will lead the search for a middle ground on Medicare reform and help build a consensus on education spending. But the centrists' success will depend on lawmakers' willingness to turn against their party leaders.

In 1881, it took the assassination of President James Garfield to shake the Senate out of its back-biting gridlock. As national crises go, the Florida furor pales in comparison. This time, it's going to take the determined, independent-minded Senators to break the logjam.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

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