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The New Senate Majority
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 8, 2001

Question: How come everybody calls Sen. Tom Daschle the majority leader? Shouldn't he be correctly called "Plurality Leader?" Doesn't the 107th Senate power-sharing agreement between the Democrats and Republicans say a party has to get a majority number of party-designated senators? An Independent and 50 Democrats wouldn't meet that definition!
– Kevin McCarthy, Valley Forge, Pa.

Button
Between 10/53 and 6/54, the Dems had more seats but LBJ was still called Senate Minority Leader. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: You make an interesting point, but there is no such distinction in the title. Tom Daschle is majority leader not because the Democrats have more than 50 votes in the Senate - which they don't - but because Sen. Jim Jeffords' (I-Vt.) switch gives Daschle 51 votes to organize the chamber. There was a similar situation in early 1953, when the Senate was comprised of 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and one independent. Yet Robert Taft (R-Ohio) was called majority leader, even though theoretically he had just a plurality. In Daschle's case, the same holds true.

The power-sharing agreement between Daschle and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in January never talked about a majority. It spoke to the fact that by picking up a net of four seats in last year's election, the Democrats wound up with the same number of seats as the Republicans. Some in the GOP, such as Texas's Phil Gramm, argued that the agreement was a sellout, that Vice President Cheney's tie-breaking vote negated the need for any power sharing. But Democrats, who actually had a Senate majority from Jan. 3-20 (when Vice President Gore could still break the tie), were threatening to cause mischief with the Bush Cabinet choices, which would have gotten the new administration off on a dubious start.

The Lott-Daschle agreement, which called for equal representation and staffing on Senate committees, was always conditional on a 50-50 split in membership. The understood message at the time was that if circumstances changed – say, if 98-year old Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) retired and was replaced by a Democrat – the agreement would be nullified. Little did anyone know that the catalyst would be the defection of a party-switcher from Vermont.

Question: Given the fact that the Democrats have taken control of the Senate, will the leadership structure change? I read that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will become assistant majority leader. Does that mean he will relinquish his role as the majority whip? If so, who are the likely candidates to replace him?
– Craig Goodman, Houston, Texas

Answer: There is no distinction between assistant leader and whip. It is one and the same.

Question: Why would Sen. Reid defer the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works committee to Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.)? Does his position as majority whip prevent him from assuming chairmanship of a committee, or was there some kind of quid pro quo? Also, why wouldn't someone who has seniority in the party get that chairmanship? Do you think this arrangement upset any of the Democratic senators?
– Josh Price, Nicholasville, Ky.

Answer: Much of the answer is shrouded in Senate secrecy, but it is generally understood that one of the plums the Democrats dangled in front of Jeffords to get him to leave the Republican Party was the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works committee. Reid was first in line for the top spot, but is said to have been willing to stand aside to help recruit Jeffords. (His position as whip would not have prevented him from chairing the committee.) The committee Jeffords headed as a Republican (Health, Education, Labor & Pensions) will be taken over by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

I don't know for a fact if any Democrats were upset by the offer to Jeffords, but columnist Robert Novak has written that Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a famous guardian of Senate rules and traditions, was not happy with the arrangement.

Question: After reading your article outlining the new incoming Democratic Senate committee chairs, I couldn't help but notice the bias. Labeling Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) as a "moderate" is an insult to anyone who follows politics. And in my home state's case, Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been a lap dog of the Democratic party, and Tom Daschle in particular, for years. Why are the vast majority of media types so liberal and how do you justify your slanted views while theoretically writing a factual article?
– Dave Scott, Billings, Montana

Answer: What you refer to was NOT in my column last week, nor was it anything I wrote. It was a link to a Washington Post "Federal Page" analysis of the new Senate committee chairs. I'm not especially a fan of pigeonholing lawmakers on the ideological scale, and I don't want to start now. I will add that compared to the more liberal makeup of most Senate Democrats, a case could be made that Lieberman and Baucus are more on the moderate side.

One could point to Baucus's votes against John Ashcroft for attorney general or for the Brady gun-control bill and say he is a liberal. But Baucus infuriated many liberals by his role in pushing the compromise tax-cut plan in the Senate this year with fellow-Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana, becoming one of 12 Democrats to vote for the plan. Perhaps mindful of George Bush's 25-point landslide in Montana last year, or the prospects of a tough re-election bid in 2002, Baucus seems to be playing a balancing act.

Question: : I am always entertained (and captivated) by your weekly ScuttleButton puzzle, and I often wonder about the underlying collection of some 50,000 buttons upon which you draw in creating each week's puzzle. Assuming that the average button is a circle about 1-1/2 inches in diameter, and could be displayed in a square of approximately 2 inches per side or 4 square inches per button, it would take about 200,000 square inches or roughly 1400 square feet to display the entire collection at once. (This by the way, is about equal to the square footage of my home here in southern California.) If you used plywood sheets 7 feet by 10 feet (covered in dark green felt), you would need about 20 single-sided or 10 double-sided sheets, each displaying about 2500 buttons per side to display the entire collection, and would no doubt require a small auditorium in which to array the plywood sheets with adequate viewing space for people to see. How do you call their content to mind each week when you devise the puzzles?
– Rich Vinet, Irvine, Calif.

Answer: I am speechless. I didn't realize how overwhelming my button obsession was until you charted it out for me! Actually, the collection is closer to 70,000 buttons, which obviously adds to the amount of plywood and dark green felt called for in your calculation.

There is no rhyme or reason to how I produce each ScuttleButton contest. Sometimes a saying or an expression I hear in a conversation sets off lights and whistles. Sometimes it's the mere mention of a movie title or a TV commercial or the name of a song. And sometimes I'll just look at a button and a puzzle idea will come to mind. Usually the more groans the puzzle elicits, the better it is received.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.


© Copyright 2001 Ken Rudin


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