What Democrats Want from their 17 Days on Top

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First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is sworn in as a U.S. Senator

Two groups in Washington are hoping January 20 takes its sweet time getting here: Inaugural party planners and Senate Democrats.

The reason? Following Wednesday's congressional swearing-in, during which a turquoise-clad Hillary Rodham Clinton made history as the only First Lady to win elected office, the Dems have an ephemeral 51-50 majority in the U.S. Senate — until Inauguration Day, when Dick Cheney will replace Al Gore as the tie-breaking vote.

Collaboration or combat?

The Senate split is a recipe for either unparalleled bipartisan cooperation or two years of unprecedented gridlock — and while more cynical pundits might dismiss the former as a pipe dream, Senate Democratic leaders are taking up the cause of collaboration, especially on relatively middle-of-the-road causes like education and prescription drug benefits.

Erstwhile minority leader Tom Daschle, (D-S.D.) maintained Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America" that he does not plan to use the next two weeks to steamroll legislation, but rather to provide the GOP with "a good example" of cooperation. "We want to show what you can really do with bipartisanship." That appeal for teamwork, of course, may disintegrate quickly with the introduction of President-elect Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut plan, or as the more contentious Cabinet nominations make their way to the Hill.

Two weeks won't last forever

Senate Democrats, of course, have a lot more to lose if their Republican counterparts snub bipartisan rhetoric — although the chamber itself will be evenly divided between the parties, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has not expressed any interest in opening committee leadership positions to Democrats. He has said, however, that he will consider a more equitable split among committee seats themselves in order to reflect the nearly perfect balance of power. Senator Phil Gramm, Republican of Texas, is less diplomatic in his dismissal of power-sharing schemes. "We're not 50 to 50," Gramm told the New York Times. "Fifty-one to 50 is not equal."

Perhaps not, Democrats counter, but the exquisite closeness of November's election — not just in the presidential race, but for many congressional seats as well — signals a lack of consensus among voters, and certainly negates any mandate claimed by either party. Congressional observers predict Democrats will return to this logic after the 20th, but for the moment, they're just hoping to use their fleeting power to articulate the concerns (over education and tax reform, among other issues) they fear could be swept under the rug in two short weeks.