Nonpartisan Barkley leaves Senate in Democrats’ hands

W By Janet Hook and Faye Fiore

wASHINGTON – Dean Barkley, the third-party activist appointed interim senator from Minnesota, announced Monday he will not side with either party during his short stay in office, allowing Democrats to keep control of the Senate during the lame-duck session–at least for now.

That means Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota will remain Senate majority leader another week or so – giving his party a last gasp of power and visibility in the wake of its losses in the Nov. 5 elections.

Barkley’s decision ends a bizarre interlude in which the leadership of the Senate could have been changed single-handedly by a man who, until his Nov. 4 appointment by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, was a little-known former carwash operator.

His choice may have little practical impact on the course of the post-election session, which begins Tuesday. But it adds to the sense of uncertainty and transition that has engulfed the Capitol following the elections in which Republicans expanded their House majority and seized control of the Senate in next year’s Congress.

Republicans stood to take over the Senate immediately if Barkley had agreed to side with them on leadership questions in the lame-duck session. Such a move would have installed Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., as majority leader. But Barkley declined to join forces with either the Democrats or the Republicans.

“I am an independent, the governor who appointed me is an independent, and I believe the best way to serve the people of Minnesota is to remain independent,” Barkley said in a statement Monday. “Rather than adding to the partisanship that so often characterizes Congress, I would like to focus on bridging differences and helping to move important legislation forward.”

Barkley, 52, is an improbable kingmaker, thrust into the limelight when, on an hour’s notice, Ventura tapped him for the Senate.

The news came so unexpectedly that Barkley, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, had to run home and put on a suit so he would look presentable for the announcement ceremony. Later, he went out to a discount clothing store and bought two more suits.

He calls himself a regular “meat and potatoes” sort of guy. He likes to chew rather than smoke his $2.50 cigars because chewing is “cheaper.”

He is still unvarnished enough to admit that “Sex in the City” is one of his favorite television shows, and that the newfound fame has sent his wife, Susan, into a tailspin.

Before announcing his decision to remain independent, Barkley spent part of Monday reading the Senate rule book; he said he was surprised to learn how much power the members of this club of 100 can wield.

“If you object, you bring the whole place to a halt,” he said. “I’ve been flexing my muscles thinking about whether I wanted to be a mischief-maker.”

His decision giving continued Democratic control of the Senate could delay GOP hopes of speeding up confirmation of Bush’s judicial nominations. But Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for Daschle, discounted the significance of Barkley’s decision.

“It doesn’t change anything,” said Schmelzer. “Both Senator Daschle and Senator Lott have the same list of priorities for the lame-duck session.”

That agenda focuses on a handful of items: passing appropriations bills to finance the government in the fiscal year already under way, reaching agreement on creation of a new Department of Homeland Security and approving a measure to provide federal backup for insurance companies against acts of terrorism.

Leaders of both parties agree that regardless of who controls the narrowly split Senate, each side must work with the other to achieve agreement on these issues.

Even without Barkley, Republicans are expected to become the majority in the Senate before the lame-duck session ends. That will occur as soon as Republican James Talent is certified by Missouri officials as the new senator from Missouri, replacing Democrat Sen. Jean Carnahan.

Talent defeated Carnahan in last week’s vote, results that should be certified in less than two weeks. Talent will be sworn in earlier than others who won last week because Carnahan had been appointed to a Senate term that expired on Election Day.

Barkley may have more impact on efforts to break the deadlock over Bush’s proposal to create a new Department of Homeland Security. The bill stalled in the Senate over Bush’s effort to waive civil-service protections for employees of the department.

Senior Republican aides say they believe Barkley will side with the GOP on that crucial issue. With that new leverage behind them, sources said that Republican and White House negotiators are nearing an agreement on a compromise that they believe could clear the House and Senate in short order.

Congressional leaders hope the entire lame-duck session will be brief. But they warn it could last for weeks, in part because of disputes that could arise over the appropriations bills.

Also this week, House Republicans and Democrats will meet separately to elect their leaders for the new Congress. Democrats are expected to elevate Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco to become House minority leader, replacing Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who announced last week he was stepping down from the leadership.

Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to select Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to be House majority leader, replacing Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, who is retiring from Congress. DeLay currently serves as House majority whip.

Barkley had the temporary power to decide who leads the lame-duck Senate because, after the death in late October of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., the Senate has 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and Independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who sides with the Democrats on leadership matters.