Seventeen Days in January

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In any other election year it'd be far-fetched, but anything goes this time around. Democrats will control the Senate for just 17 days next year. That's because new senators will be sworn in on Jan. 3, when the split in the chamber will likely be 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, but the new president and vice president won't be sworn in until Jan. 20. During those 17 days, the old vice president, Al Gore, will still be president of the Senate and his running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, will still be a Connecticut senator. Gore will be able to cast tie-breaking votes to give the majority in the chamber to the Democrats.

When he first heard of this quirk in the swearing-in schedule several weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle didn't pay it much attention. The current Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, would probably still run the place informally, since Republicans would be in the majority on Jan. 20, no matter which man became president, Daschle aides thought. If it's Dubya, Lieberman keeps his Senate seat and Dick Cheney casts tie-breaking votes to give Republicans control in the 50-50 chamber; if it's Al, Lieberman gives up his Senate seat and Lott controls with a 51-49 majority. Besides, what can you do in just 17 days?

But this week, the Senate parliamentarian informed Daschle's office that rules are rules. Daschle will be majority leader for 17 days in January and Lott will have to step aside during that time. So Daschle's staff is now scrambling to decide what it will do during the Democrats' 17-day reign. They've ruled out firing the thousands of Republican staffers that the majority gets to hire. That's not the way to start out a friendly working relationship with the other party, and Lott would just rehire the aides when he was back in harness on Jan. 20. But Daschle will run floor proceedings and he may name Democratic senators as committee chairmen during those 17 days, say his aides. "The precedent of those 17 days might be important for future Congresses" that face tied chambers, says one of his advisers.

Aides aren't sure yet what Daschle will do with the Senate floor or his Democratic chairmen those 17 days. But if a dispute over Florida's electors ever reaches the Senate — and Gore could cast the tie-breaking vote in his favor — you can be sure Daschle won't squander his short-lived power.