With Barkley not caucusing with the Democrats or Republicans, South Dakota’s Tom Daschle will remain majority leader of the Senate at least until newly elected Jim Talent, a Republican, is certified as the winner of the Senate race in Missouri. Talent will give Republicans a majority of one.

Barkley, appointed by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura to finish out the term of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, said he believed that remaining independent would be in keeping with the character of Wellstone, who died in a plane crash Oct. 25. He described Wellstone as “one of the most independent thinkers in the long history of Congress.”

The delay in the transfer of control could have implications for the fate of several pending pieces of legislation, including the long-awaited disaster assistance amendment to the energy appropriations bill.

Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who is expected to become majority leader when control reverts to the Republicans, is said to be pushing for a quick session and adjournment before the “lame duck” Congress can do any significant damage.

Lott has been quoted as saying he has “never seen a lame-duck session that serves the American people well.”

According to reports, Lott wants Congress to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) that would fund the government through the end of January rather than get bogged down in arguing over the 11 of 13 FY 2003 appropriations bills that Congress has yet to pass. The government is now operating on a CR passed before it adjourned in late October.

House leaders, on the other hand, reportedly want to resume work on the appropriations bills to try to complete as many as possible before Congress does adjourn for the year. The Senate version of the energy appropriations bill contains a disaster assistance amendment.

While Lott apparently wants to wrap up the lame-duck session quickly, other senators, including fellow Mississippian Thad Cochran, are trying to get some form of disaster aid legislation back on firm footing before Congress adjourns.

Farmers in the Mississippi Delta and the Delta regions of other Mid-South states have been hammered by wet conditions brought by two tropical storms and numerous fronts that have caused losses in yield and quality for cotton, rice and soybeans.

Daschle, who has been fighting for months for disaster aid for drought-stricken farmers in his and other western states, has said he favors working on appropriations bills, homeland security, judicial nominations and other pending issues.

President Bush has asked Congress to finish work on legislation authorizing the new Department of Homeland Security before it adjourns for the year, calling it the “single most important bit of unfinished business on Capitol Hill.”

Keeping Congress in session long enough for work to be completed on homeland security department legislation may be key to passage of any disaster assistance legislation in the current year, observers say.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com