The petting and wooing and hint dropping is getting hot and heavy in one
chamber of Congress. With the Senate split 50-50 between Republicans and
Democrats, both parties have been quietly, but intensely, looking for defectors.
Everywhere you turn, one senator or another is getting the TLC treatment from
the other party.
The stakes couldn't be higher. The Republicans and Majority Leader Trent
Lott now control the Senate because Vice President Dick Cheney casts the tie-
breaking vote. But 98-year-old Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina,
who spends many weekends in the hospital, is looking increasingly frail. The
governor from his state is a Democrat and likely to appoint a Democrat to fill
the seat if Thurmond leaves early. That would mean the Democrats control the
Senate with a 51-49 majority, making Sen. Tom Daschle the majority leader.
If Thurmond goes, Lott needs another Republican to keep his job as majority
leader. Daschle is in the hunt for a Republican to trump Lott if Thurmond hangs
on, or to play defense if Lott manages to convince a Democrat to switch. Here
are some of the Senators in their sights:
Sen. Zell Miller, a conservative maverick Democrat from Georgia, has been courted
by Republicans practically from the day he was sworn in last January. Texas
Republican Sen. Phil Gramm got Miller to sign onto George W. Bush's mega-tax
cut, and, ever since, Gramm has been trying to sweet talk Miller into becoming a
Republican. Press speculation became white hot several weeks ago that Miller was
about to jump ship. The speculators apparently were ahead of Miller, who
adamantly denies he was mulling a switch. "I don't want to talk about it!"
Miller barked when I cornered him with the defection rumor off the Senate floor.
"It's a non-story!" He walked off, muttering to himself: "This is the damnedest
It sure is. Take John McCain. Rumors have been swirling that the maverick
Republican who battled Bush in last year's presidential primaries might bolt the
GOP to run as a Democrat, or perhaps as a third party candidate, against the
President in 2004. No way, says McCain. But the two men certainly are acting
like campaign opponents. The Arizona Senator votes with Democrats on a number of
issues and practically every Democratic senator running for President has gotten
him to co-sponsor a pet bill. Bush, for his part, keeps trying to preempt McCain for example, endorsing a rival patient's bill of rights instead of the one the
Senator is co-sponsoring. Senate Democrats have discussed among themselves the
possibility of McCain switching sides, though no one has yet proffered a serious
Bagging McCain would be quite a coup for Senate Dems. But their leaders know
it would come with a price. McCain would likely give them as many fits as he
gives the Republicans.
One senator who's being coy about whether he might switch is Vermont
Republican Sen. James Jeffords. When newspapers began suggesting last week that
Jeffords might bolt for the Donkey Party, Jeffords had his press secretary issue
a weak denial. "Sen. Jeffords is very comfortable as the most conservative
member of the Vermont delegation," says spokesman Erik Smulson. "Regardless of
party label, he will do what he thinks is best for Vermont and the nation." So
does that mean he could do what's best for Vermont as a Democrat? "That's all
I'm authorized to say," Smulson says.
Jeffords may portray himself as the most conservative member of the Vermont
congressional delegation, but he's one of the most moderate and independent-
minded Republicans in the Senate. And he's giving Bush fits. The White House was
furious with Jeffords' refusal to support Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut, which
forced Lott to compromise on a lower number. There were dark rumors coming from
Republicans that Jeffords would be punished for not supporting the President. Go
ahead and you'll drive him out of the party, Jeffords aides threatened back.
Vermonters love independents and Democrats.