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Int'l Court: As the Senate Shifts

When Beltway suitors come courting they offer unusual enticements: committee chairmanships and promises about milk pricing. Not exactly typical terms of endearment, but then the goal is not a walk down the aisle, but a step across it.

For weeks, Republican Sen. James Jeffords has played the coquet, entertaining Democrats’ overtures, but making no commitment. When the White House didn’t invite him to a ceremony honoring a hometown teacher, he pouted and the Dems commiserated. When his dairy bill hit a snag, he fretted that the Administration was punishing him for opposing their tax bill. Democrats milked the opportunity, noting that pro-tax views would find good company among their ranks. As Jeffords softened, the deal sweetened: chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, or if it suited the Senator’s fancy, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions – his for a simple realignment.

Last night, the Evans-Novak Political Report circulated an e-mail saying that a deal has been sealed. "Jeffords was overheard on Tuesday telling a Democratic colleague that he will switch parties." Suddenly, the White House couldn’t dispatch an invitation quickly enough. Jeffords was shuttled to 1600 Penn. where he spoke with both Bush and Cheney. Morning headlines suggest that the meeting did not go well, and that an announcement could come this afternoon.

For Republicans, a switch would spell disaster. Jeffords’ liberal instincts scarcely qualify him as a party stalwart – far from it. But without him, rather than a split Senate swayed by Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking vote, the Democrats gain a majority and with it, control of committees, appointments, and agenda. Washington wags speculate that the GOP could even the score by drawing in conservative Democrat Zell Miller, but thus far the Georgia senator has rebuffed their advances.

The dealmakers are scurrying and the principals are silent. Both sides know the stakes: the balance of power, and with it, the President’s prospects. The rest of us can only wait – and wonder how an unassuming moderate from a tiny northeastern state just became the most powerful man in Washington.

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