The Hunt for Senate Defectors

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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 place."

  • 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 invitation.

    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.

    Stay tuned.