Senators adjust to new reality

Like 47 of their Republican colleagues, Georgia's two U.S. senators soon will have to get used to something new: life in the minority.

Neither Saxby Chambliss nor Johnny Isakson has ever served in a Congress controlled by Democrats, either in the Senate or the House, where both previously served.

The Democrats' rise to power in this month's congressional elections will cost both a great deal of the clout they enjoyed while Republicans held sway at the Capitol.

But both said last week they still will have a say in shaping policy on the issues they care about most.

For one thing, there are the rules of the Senate, which are designed to give minority senators more control over what happens in the upper chamber than minority House members get on their side of the building.

The most significant of those rules requires the votes of 60 of the 100 senators to cut off floor debate on legislation before the Senate. Thus, action on any bill can be delayed indefinitely unless at least 60 senators support it.

Democrats will only control 51 Senate seats when the 110th Congress convenes in January.

"A 51-49 (Democratic) majority in the Senate, when it takes 60 votes to pass anything, is going to require bipartisanship,'' Isakson said.

Ironically, Republicans now will benefit from the same "cloture'' rule they tried to do away with last year when minority Democrats were holding up several of President Bush's judicial nominations. Cooler heads prevailed and the rule was kept when a bipartisanship group of senators forged an agreement that paved the way for the nominations to go through.

Beyond the way the rules are structured, the Senate also has enjoyed a greater reputation for bipartisanship than the House.

When Republicans seized control of the House a dozen years ago, led by former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, it was a more moderate, bipartisan Senate that put the brakes on some of the major changes being sought by a House dominated by GOP conservatives.

A key contributor to the greater role bipartisanship plays in the Senate is the clubby atmosphere of the smaller chamber.

Chambliss, who will be losing his chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, said he and the incoming chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, have built a strong personal relationship over the years.

Chambliss said he is confident that, in his new role as the panel's ranking Republican, he won't have to fight Harkin to protect cotton subsidies when the committee takes up a new farm bill next year.

"With Senator Harkin as chairman, by no means will there be any move against Southern crops in favor of Midwestern crops,'' Chambliss said.

Just as Chambliss expects to maintain his influence over farm policy, Isakson anticipates still being a player on issues he has been involved in since moving up to the Senate two years ago.

In fact, he could see more action on some of his priorities with Congress under Democratic rule.

Isakson is poised to move forward with a potential compromise on embryonic stem cell research with a Democratic-controlled Senate expected to take up the issue.

He has talked of limiting the research to malformed fertilized eggs that have been discarded by fertility clinics because they aren't capable of surviving inside the womb.

On another front, Isakson could gain more traction with his plan for dealing with illegal immigration.

Democrats anxious to work with Bush to adopt a guest worker program for illegal immigrants may gravitate toward a compromise Isakson offered last year that would require securing U.S. borders as a precondition for comprehensive reform.

"I've always tried to work to find common ground on issues that are important, and illegal immigration is an important issue,'' he said. "Not dealing with it is really shirking our responsibility.''

While Chambliss and Isakson clearly want to keep as much of their previous influence as possible during the next two years of Democratic rule, their clout with their colleagues isn't likely to affect their re-election prospects, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.

Who's in and who's out in Washington is inside baseball as far as their constituents are concerned, he said.

"Most voters aren't involved in that kind of politics,'' he said.

Chambliss' term expires in 2008 and Isakson's in 2010. Barring a major sea change in Georgia politics between now and then, Black said both should feel secure.

He cited exit polls from this month's elections showing that 44 percent of Georgia voters labeled themselves Republicans, compared to just 32 percent who said they were Democrats.

"That's to the Republicans' advantage in statewide elections,'' Black said.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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