Ohio senators face shake-up
If Sen. Jeffords crosses party lines, the power shift will have little effect on Senate operations, an OSU professor said.
By MEGAN SCULLY
STATES NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- A GOP senator's decision to bolt his party will strip Ohio's two Republican senators of their prize subcommittee chairmanships.
In a decision that has the Capitol corridors abuzz, Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., announced today that he would become an independent -- a move that would throw the majority power in the Senate chamber into the hands of Democrats for the first time since 1994.
Ohio Republican Sen. George V. Voinovich said the switch "is weighing heavy on my heart."
Announcement today: Jeffords made the announcement today from his home state, but speculation over what the decision means was already running rampant Wednesday in Washington.
"We've never been faced with this before,' said Karen O'Connor, a government professor at American University who has written several textbooks on Congress.
Since 1893, 18 senators have switched parties, but none of those affected the power structure in the chamber, according to the Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress.
Jeffords has been at odds with the White House and fellow GOP lawmakers in recent weeks over increasing education spending in the president's budget proposal. He was also part of a successful moderate-driven campaign to scale back the president's $1.6 trillion proposed tax cut to $1.35 trillion.
Shortly after the Senate vote on the tax cut, Bush did not invite Jeffords to a White House ceremony honoring a Vermont educator who won the National Teacher of the Year award.
"Here you have a 50/50 Senate and the White House is playing games with Jeffords over petty things like invitations to the White House," said Marshall Wittmann, a congressional expert and analyst with the conservative Hudson Institute.
"They brought this upon themselves."
Potential end: For Voinovich and Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, Jeffords' decision could spell the end of their subcommittee chairmanships, which would land in the laps of Democrats once the Senate's party ratio becomes 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent.
The ranking Democrats on committees and subcommittees would become chairmen, while the Republican leaders would become ranking minority members.
DeWine is chairman of a Senate Judiciary Committee panel that handles antitrust and an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the District of Columbia.
Voinovich chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, as well as the Governmental Affairs subcommittee on government management.
While they would be stripped of their chairmanships, Jeffords' decision would have little impact on their powers, said Voinovich spokesman Scott Milburn.
But with majority rule, which Democrats would have, comes the power to schedule floor votes on legislation, which would restrict the Ohio Republicans from having as clear a path to bringing their issues to the floor.
Randall Ripley, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, said the power shift would have little effect on Senate operations because rules and tradition require both parties to collaborate and compromise.
"The Senate, unlike the House, may be partisan when it comes to voting, but in terms of working out the details when it comes to legislation, there needs to be agreement between parties," Ripley said.
"The minority in the Senate contributes, whereas, it is easier in the House for the majority to freeze the minority out."
Crossing the line: News reports have said that Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is hoping to woo other moderate Republican senators to his party -- a move that could put Voinovich and DeWine, who the National Journal says are among the most liberal Republicans, in line with the Democrat strategy.
Milburn said Voinovich had not been approached by Daschle or any other Democrats. Voinovich is one of most fiscally conservative, staunch Republican members. "You would never see that," Milburn said.
DeWine's office did not return calls, but has said the senator would not comment on Jeffords' decision until it's official.