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Jewish World Review June 1, 2001 / 10 Sivan, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Missing in action: Democratic outrage -- SENATE Democrats, now on the verge of regaining control of what they like to regard as the Upper Body, are euphoric over the thought that a new political world has dawned and is smiling on them as a result of the defection of Republican Jim Jeffords.

In their headiness, they may even comfort themselves with the notion that if the Vermont senator had only jumped the GOP ship a bit sooner, they might have scuttled President Bush's gigantic and wrong-headed tax cut.

That notion, however, is laughable in light of the Senate Democratic leaders' inability to keep in line their own versions of Jeffords - independent-minded colleagues like Zell Miller of Georgia and party unreliables like Bob Torricelli of New Jersey. In all, too many Senate Democrats - a dozen in all - went off the reservation on the tax cut for Jeffords' switch to have made any difference.

For all the talk about Republican disarray in the wake of the Jeffords move, the Democrats have their own problems. You might have thought the 49 Democratic votes in the Senate before Jeffords declared himself an independent would have been enough to thwart a tax cut that imperils the federal surplus and the very heart of the Democratic legislative agenda. Two Republicans, after all, joined the Senate Democrats who did vote against the cut.

Instead, the Democrats declared victory in merely whittling down the Bush aspiration for a $1.6 trillion cut to "only" $1.35 trillion. Considering the Bush proposal had been considered dead on arrival in his own party a year earlier when he first started to campaign on it, the Senate Democrats' "success" in paring it down a bit was a dismal failure.

The Democratic hope now is that with Jeffords voting with them they will be able to derail the Bush rush to the past. New Democratic committee chairmen are already planning actions to replace his agenda with their own. Carl Levin of Michigan, who will be the new chairman of the Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, says he will press oil companies to say why prices at the gasoline pump have risen so fast "when there's been no comparable increase in the per-barrel cost of oil to them." Try picturing that in a GOP-controlled Senate.

Democrat Pat Leahy of Vermont, resuming the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee he held long enough to give a good going-over to John Ashcroft, Bush's nominee for attorney general, will be back in that seat. His presence assures that Bush's bid for a host of conservative new federal judges will have a tough gauntlet to run.

And with Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bush's efforts to rehabilitate the old Reagan pipe dream of a Star Wars missile defense system may well be detoured, or at least shunted to the back burner of more research. Doing so would please our NATO allies, as Secretary of State Colin Powell apparently learned in his recent rejected pitch to them on Bush's plan.

In none of these moves, however, is there much sense of Democratic outrage that the minority president who lost the popular vote by half a million ballots is acting as if he had some clear-cut mandate from the electorate. When Jeffords switched, Bush's response was to reiterate his intention to press on undeterred with his rollback agenda that would undo many aspects of the Clinton years and return the country to economic and ideological Reaganism.

Perhaps that outrage will come in the approaching months if Bush continues to adhere to the encouragement of his party's most conservative faction to stay that course, and the Democrats find their footing in their new, if tenuous, hold on the Senate. The prospective new Senate leader, Tom Daschle, has mouthed an invitation to Bush to join him in bipartisanship, which is another way of calling on him to trim his sails to avoid the gridlock he so criticized as a candidate last year.

The outlook for that, however, is not promising. The new political world that Jim Jeffords has midwifed is likely to be one of mutual contentiousness, at least until clarified by the results of the congressional elections 18 months from now.

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