At a recent Washington affair, George W. Bush joked that the lesson of his Florida electoral ordeal was simple: "Don't peak too soon."
Little did he know. As BusinessWeek went to press on May 24, the President was in danger of being dealt a stunning setback by, of all people, a soft-spoken Vermonter named James M. Jeffords. A GOP moderate who faced ostracism from conservatives over his role in paring down Bush's tax cut, Jeffords reacted badly to a string of threats and snubs. On May 23, he was poised to abandon the Republican Party and formally announce plans to become an Independent. The result: A Democratic majority in a Senate that has been vital to Bush.
Moreover, Jeffords' expected leap into the unknown could just be the beginning of a period of Borgia-like intrigue that could roil the normally staid upper chamber. Emboldened by Jeffords' move, Democrats are stepping up attempts to get another lonely GOP moderate, Rhode Island's Lincoln D. Chafee, to follow suit. So far, he's staying put. And Republicans have promised Zell Miller, Georgia's right-of-center Democrat, the moon and several outer planets in hopes of luring him. Miller's answer so far: No dice. The turmoil could grow if two other Senate stalwarts, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) depart. Thurmond is in fragile health, and Torricelli faces pressure from a probe of his fund-raising.
SEISMIC SHIFT. If Jeffords does defect, it means bye-bye to Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) with his infamous coif and iron rule, and hello, Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.). Farewell, too, to GOP committee chiefs who wanted to hustle Bush's agenda to passage before the 2002 elections. Before Jeffords set off a seismic shift, the President was operating on the equivalent of Internet time. He was trying to rush conservative appointees and programs through the Senate in a compressed two-year burst.
A reshuffled Senate isn't expected to upend the $1.35 trillion tax cut. Jeffords told colleagues he will vote for the Senate version of the measure before changing affiliation. But the shift could undermine the rest of Bush's small-government agenda. "Bush can declare a tax-cut victory," says KPMG partner Harry L. Gutman. "But it's going to be a lot harder for him to get anything done after that."
One repercussion would be the sweeping changes in committee leadership. Consider the new Bush energy plan. Oil-and-gas drillers were counting on Senate Energy Committee Chairman Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska to add lucrative production incentives to the package. Now, both the breaks and Bush's pro-development tilt are at risk. The presumed new Democratic chairman, New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, is a Sunbelt moderate who lacks Murkow-ski's strong industry ties. "Now there will be more emphasis on renewables, conservation, and environmental protection," says Kim Wallace, chief political analyst at Lehman Brothers Inc.
The Vermont Mutiny could also cripple White House plans to nominate conservatives to the federal bench. Under Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Bush expected to get most of his picks through. If control shifts to liberal Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, many nominees are likely to be rejected. And chances would dim for naming a strict constructionist to any Supreme Court vacancy.
Not all of the Bush agenda would crumble, of course. At Foreign Relations, centrist Democrat Joseph R. Biden of Delaware would supplant conservative stalwart Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.). But since the panel leaves foreign-policy formulation to the President, not much would change.
Ditto the Senate Health, Education & Labor Committee, where Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is in line to take over from Jeffords. Prodded by Kennedy, the White House already added millions for school reform. And if the Vermonter jumps ship, he's expected to take control of the Environment panel.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's plans for billions in new Pentagon spending would likely be under attack with a new Senate regime. At Armed Services, Michigan liberal Carl Levin would be in. Out: Defense cheerleader John W. Warner (R-Va.). Rumsfeld could face withering fire from Levin and Democratic Appropriations baron Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.
Bush's push for new trade agreements would also run into trouble if Senate Commerce, now run by free-trader John McCain (R-Ariz.), goes over to South Carolina retro-Democrat Ernest F. Hollings, a protectionist. Still, that may have a silver lining for Bush: McCain, a thorn in the President's hide, would lose his soapbox.
Another consolation is that the Senate Finance Committee, which helped give Bush his big tax victory, wouldn't change ideological coloration much. Democractic moderate Max S. Baucus of Montana would likely head the committee. He's already on the outs with liberals for allying with GOP Finance honcho Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) to draft the bipartisan pact that gave Bush many of his tax cuts.
ENEMY HANDS. What would it all mean? Life may be about to get much more difficult for Bush. Up to now, he relied on bipartisan Senate coalitions to give his plans propulsion. In a 50-49 Senate with Democrats in charge, he will be under greater pressure to cut deals with moderate Democrats.
To further complicate matters, a Senate in enemy hands forces Bush to rely more on the GOP-led House. But that's where arch conservatives such as Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) reign. The two favor ideological shoot-outs over legislative compromise. With partisanship on the rise and his Senate cushion potentially gone, Dubya would face tough going for the rest of his agenda--and the prospect of three long years in a Balkanized capital.
By Lee Walczak with Lorraine Woellert and Washington bureau reports