By Karen Branch

On a low-key day that belied the high-impact shift of power from Republicans to Democrats, the Senate was in flux Wednesday - for senators, staff members and observers alike.

A back-row moderate Republican, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, became an independent and took a third-row spot with the Democrats, giving them a 50-49 majority - and control of the Senate for the first time in six years.

On the Senate floor, the change took place Wednesday morning with little fanfare. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was sworn in as the Senate's new president pro tem and recognized the new majority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

"We have just witnessed something that has never before happened in all of Senate history - the change of power during a session of Congress," said Daschle, whose first speech reflected his tenuous hold on power. He called Jeffords "courageous." He referred to the man he replaced, Republican leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., as "my partner."

At the same time, similar, measured changes were taking place in Senate committee rooms - where calls of bipartisanship and cooperation were the order of the day.

Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., didn't even bother with a ceremonial switch of the gavel as he lost his chairmanship of the Appropriations subcommittee that writes the nation's housing budget. He walked straight to the "ranking member" seat. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., took over Bond's old chair.

"We didn't want to create too much drama," one committee staff member said. "Those were our directions from the parliamentarian."

Mikulski spoke first. Bond played second fiddle for the first time since he became chairman in 1995, and he cracked a joke that exaggerated his deference to the newly powerful chairwoman from Maryland: "One of my top priorities was the Chesapeake Bay," Bond said to laughter in the packed committee room.

Freshman Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., found herself without a committee as Daschle continued negotiations with Republicans on committee structure. Without an accord, the Senate shifted to the committee assignments from last year - before Carnahan became a senator.

The procedure led to a confused set of invitations for Wednesday's Senate committee meetings. Bond's staff for the Appropriations subcommittee invited last year's members - some of whom had moved to other committees this year - as well as this year's members.

Like Bond, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., also was bumped from his chairmanships of two Senate subcommittees - one for agriculture, the other, consumer affairs.

No sweat, said his spokesman, Brian Stoller:

"The senator has said that he has always walked an independent road, which means in instances like this, the ramifications are less striking."

Bond also lost his chairmanship of the Small Business Committee. His staff there prepared to hand over the majority suite to the Democratic staff that will answer to the new chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

But as of Wednesday night, the switch had not taken place.

"Whenever the movers figure out how to do all these moves," is when it will happen, said Emilia DiSanto, Bond's staff director for the committee, who said that the whisker-thin difference between parties could prompt another series of moves. "Oh, Lord, yes. We might be on quite a see-saw up here."

Bond's staff from the budget subcommittee, however, had already begun its move from the majority office Tuesday night, about an hour before the gavel fell to mark the end of Republican rule.

That office Wednesday was stripped bare of furniture and equipment. Down the hall, the now-minority staff surveyed its smaller digs, surrounded by scores of unpacked boxes and filing cabinets. In the hall outside was a pile of 38 more boxes, a sofa and a desk. It was just a fraction of the loads of furniture and boxes that lined the walls of Senate office buildings Wednesday, all awaiting the only Senate employees who were fully assured of their jobs:

The movers.

Brian Carlson Of The Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau Contributed Information For This Report