By Shaun Sutner

- Massachusetts Democrats yesterday celebrated the expected defection of Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords from the GOP, reasoning that a Democrat-controlled Senate would give the state more influence in Washington and, pos- sibly, more federal aid.

Many expected the return of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to the chairmanship of the powerful Health, Education and Labor Committee for the first time since 1994, when Republicans won a Senate majority.

In that familiar role, Mr. Kennedy, now the ranking member, could push the agenda toward more funding for hospitals and academic research, issues he has long been associated with and which are seen as beneficial to Massachusetts. The chairmanship also would put him in a position to help raise the nation's minimum wage, something he has actively supported.

This is a big plus for Massachusetts, even with a Republican president,'' said Worcester County Treasurer Michael J. Donaghue, a longtime friend of the Kennedy family. Hospitals and universities are absolutely vital to the economy of the Northeast.

Sen. Kennedy is going to be in a position to broker more legislation that will help with health insurance, Medicaid problems and biotechnology,'' he continued.

Having both Mr. Kennedy and Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., who could land a committee or subcommittee chairmanship, in more influential positions is not likely to dramatically loosen federal purse strings, however.

Speculation on Capitol Hill yesterday was that Mr. Kerry might become chairman of the 18-member Small Business Committee. The committee primarily deals with matters related to the Small Business Administration, including investigations into some of the agency's financial matters.

New England has been getting a steadily decreasing share of federal money. That corresponds with the growing clout the Southern and Western states have in the House, which largely controls federal financial appropriations.

Nevertheless, state Sen. Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester, said that with Mr. Kennedy guiding the Health, Education and Labor Committee, Democrats could try to steer funds to teaching hospitals and university research. Much of that funding was lost after passage the Republican-sponsored Balanced Budget Act of 1997.

It's possible that the Senate at least may exert moral leadership that may galvanize the House to follow suit,'' said Ms. Chandler, chairwoman of the state Legislature's federal financial assistance committee.

Ms. Chandler also noted that a Democratic Senate also could stymie Republican legislation.

But even as Democrats looked forward to a new era, there were words of caution.

Some observers pointed out that there still are plenty of conservative Southern Democrats who could vote with Republicans -- just as a northern liberal Republican such as Mr. Jeffords sided with Democrats -- to advance the GOP agenda.

Even though you now have a majority for the Democrats, it's hardly a lock-cinch working majority on all bills,'' said Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor and political analyst at Boston University.

The general consensus, though, is that Massachusetts is bound to come out ahead. All 10 members of the Bay State's congressional delegation are Democrats.

Other than Boston's Big Dig construction project, the Bay State has experienced massive cuts in transportation aid over the last decade, said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

As a general matter, the fact that we have a Republican governor with a Republican president but on the other hand an all-Democratic delegation, means that this change will be positive because it will have all bases covered,'' Mr. Widmer said. It's a more powerful combination for the state.''