A political earthquake has science lobbyists scrambling to map a dramatically altered United States Senate. Republican Senator Jim Jeffords (VT) today announced that he is defecting from his party and becoming an Independent, handing control of the legislative body to the Democrats. Science advocates say the power shake-up has mixed implications for research budgets and science policy.
Last November's elections left the 100-member Senate balanced on a knife's edge, with both parties controlling 50 seats. Republicans had the upper hand, however, because their party won the White House, and Vice President Dick Cheney had the deciding vote to break any Senate tie. As a result, Republicans filled the body's top leadership posts and decided who led committees, when bills were brought to a vote, and who represented the Senate in key negotiations with the House over the final version of legislation.
Now, Democrats will push all those buttons, with Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) expected to replace Trent Lott (R-MS) as majority leader as early as next week. Committees will also get new leaders, although in many cases the newcomers aren't expected to alter the direction of key science panels. At the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA, for instance, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), an ardent supporter of boosting NSF's budget, will replace the equally enthusiastic Kit Bond (R-MO). Similarly, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a leading voice for doubling government spending on biomedical research, will take over from fellow doubling advocate Arlen Specter (R-PA) as head of the panel that oversees the budget of the National Institutes of Health. Both senators also oppose Bush Administration moves to ban federal funding for research using stem cells harvested from human embryos.
Other committees, however, could see changes in emphasis. The spending panel that decides the Department of Energy's (DOE's) research budget, for instance, is currently led by Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), a DOE research supporter whose state includes the Los Alamos National Laboratory and several other large DOE research facilities. He will be replaced by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), who is also friendly to science. However, Reid has been critical of DOE's plans to open the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in his state and of cost overruns for the $3.4 billion National Ignition Facility, a giant laser project at DOE's Livermore National Laboratory in California. At the Senate Energy Committee, meanwhile, renewable energy advocate Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) will take over from Frank Murkowski (R-AK), a friend of the oil and gas industry.
Congress watchers say such switches could make it harder for President George W. Bush to push his energy policy and other agenda items--from missile defense to rollbacks in global warming research--through Congress. But researchers could benefit over the long term from the new balance of power, says Howard Gobstein, a Washington-based lobbyist for Michigan State University in East Lansing. "Support for science has been largely bipartisan," he notes, so "it will probably be beneficial [to science advocates] to have both parties actively involved in leading the government."