Imagine a boat crowded with 100 well-dressed men and women as the crew. Imagine them sitting 50 to a side, their captain standing to starboard - the right. The boat lists slightly to the right.
A member of the crew - a 67-year old Vermonter, as it happens - crossed the deck yesterday. He will thereby alter the ship's course.
Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont's three-term senator, announced he was leaving the Republican Party and becoming an independent who will support the Democrats on organizational matters. There will be 49 Republicans on one side, 50 Democrats on the other with Jeffords sitting nearby. The boat might begin to travel toward the center or to port - to the left.
That is to say, the Democrats will take control.
The captain? Vice President Dick Cheney, president of the Senate, can no longer count on casting a tie-breaking vote. He doesn't change position but will have less say over the course of the ship.
Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota will become majority leader, in place of Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi. And the Senate's committees - where much of the legislative work is done - will be chaired by Democrats instead of Republicans.
On this page is a list of the current Republican chairmen of the main Senate committees, and a list of their probable successors, as described by Karen Hosler of The Sun's Washington Bureau.
Old: Richard G. Lugar (R-Indiana): Mainstream Republican, former presidential candidate, specialist in foreign affairs , presided over reduction of farm subsidies.
New: Tom Harkin (D-Iowa): Populist Democrat, former presidential candidate, focused on domestic social issues, expansion of government help for farmers.
Old: Ted Stevens (R-Alaska): Short-tempered, big spender, takes particularly good care of his home state.
New: Robert C. Byrd (D-West Virginia): Former majority leader, most senior Democrat, big spender, takes particularly good care of his home state.
Old: John W. Warner (R-Virginia): Mainstream Republican, former Navy secretary.
New: Carl Levin (D-Michigan): Liberal Democrat wary of big boosts in defense spending and foreign involvements, favors base closings.
Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Old: Phil Gramm (R-Texas): Folksy conservative Republican and former presidential candidate, tight-fisted economist; favors large tax cuts, opposes requiring banks to lend in local communities.
New: Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Maryland): Cerebral, reliable vote for liberal causes, frequent critic of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan; wants to investigate predatory lending practices.
Old: Pete V. Domenici (R-New Mexico): A GOP stalwart and veteran of deficit-cutting wars.
New: Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota): Rising star in his party, leading Senate critic of Bush budget and tax proposals.
Commerce, Science and Transportation
Old: John McCain (R-Arizona): Former presidential candidate who earned a reputation as party maverick; fan of campaign finance reform who takes on K Street lobbyists, but collects money from them.
New: Ernest F. Hollings (D-South Carolina): Booming-voiced Southern conservative, best known for protecting textile industries in his state.
Energy and Natural Resources
Old: Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska): Conservative champion of opening Alaska wildlife reserve and other protected areas to oil and gas exploration.
New: Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico): Liberal opponent of opening Alaska wildlife reserve and other protected areas to oil and gas exploration.
Environment and Public Works
Old: Bob Smith (R-New Hampshire): Quirky former presidential candidate, very conservative, but more moderate on environmental issues.
Probable new: James M. Jeffords (independent, Vermont): Greenie who left the GOP in part because he disagreed with Bush administration environmental policies.
Old: Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa): Mainsteam, compromiser; finished successfully maneuvering his first tax bill through the Senate.
New: Max Baucus, (D-Montana): Moderate, backed compromise tax bill, faces tight re-election contest.
Old: Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina): Very conservative, anti-Castro, anti-abortion rights; scourge of State Departments in Republican as well as Democratic administrations.
New: Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Delaware): Relatively liberal, former and perhaps future presidential candidate likely to resist any efforts to abrogate the anti-ballistic missile treaty.
Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee): Former Watergate lawyer and actor, used the committee to look into Clinton fund-raising scandals.
New: Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Connecticut): Last year's vice presidential nominee on the Gore ticket, relatively liberal, considered a man of high conscience.
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Old: James M. Jeffords (as Republican-Vermont): Left the GOP because Bush wouldn't spend enough money for education, particularly for children with special needs.
New: Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts): Long the emblem of liberal causes, including public schools, universal health care, strong labor rights.
Old: Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah): Conservative, prospective Supreme Court choice, tried to diminish Democrats' role in confirmation of federal judges.
New: Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont): Liberal, former prosecutor, fought Ashcroft nomination, prides himself on being a Deadhead - a fan of the Grateful Dead rock group.
Old: Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky): Conservative, leading opponent of campaign finance reform.
New: Christopher J. Dodd (D-Connecticut): New England liberal, supporter of campaign finance reform.
Old: Christopher Bond (R-Missouri): Moderate, sponsored Family and Medical Leave Act vetoed by former President George Bush, signed by Clinton.
New: John Kerry (D-Massachusetts): Liberal, won fame as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a presidential hopeful.
Old: Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania): Former prosecutor known for a mixed voting record, aggressive manner.
New: John D. Rockefeller IV (D-West Virginia): Liberal former governor attuned to blue-collar concerns of his poor state.