Gop Digs In Heels, Watches The Clock

September 24, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- With two weeks and a mountain of unfinished business left before Congress is scheduled to adjourn for the year, lawmaking has nearly ground to a halt over Senate Republican delaying tactics.

Democrats charge that Republicans are so determined to deny President Clinton any further legislative victories that they have poisoned the atmosphere and further undermined the credibility a badly tarnished institution.

"In my 20 years in this Congress, I have never seen anything like exists today," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat.

"This attitude of gridlock, of stopping everything, the cynicism, the attitude that nothing can get through here because it might make President Clinton look good, that we have to stop things because perhaps the only way to take over is to tear it down. . . . I see a tearing down . . . of the structure of Congress."

Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas counters that the Democrats are trying to blame the opposition for their own failures. "That always happens at the end of the year," Mr. Dole said.

What's clear is that the historically balky and bogged-down Senate has set a new standard for stalemate.

The senators were in session all night Thursday, running out a 30-hour clock on a Republican filibuster of a procedural move normally agreed to automatically by unanimous consent.

The filibuster was against a motion to disagree with House amendments to a campaign finance reform bill. The motion finally passed yesterday, 93 to 0.

Now, Republicans are planning to exercise their right to require 60 more hours of debate before the Senate can clear two more procedural hurdles that would simply allow for a joint conference committee to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of the campaign finance bill.

"No one can recall, nor can anyone find, any record of a similar series of events," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine. "We've had an unprecedented increase in use of the filibuster in the Senate" to block votes on amendments or final passage or even on bringing up a bill for debate. But "never in more than 200 years have we had a filibuster on trying to go to conference on a bill."

Sen. David L. Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat who had to stay up all night with the filibustering Republicans, observed: "Anyone who has ever watched a football game can see what's happening: They are simply trying to run out the clock. Their desire is to say this Congress failed in virtually everything it tried to do."

The campaign finance reform bill, a Clinton priority to which the Republicans have a number of substantive objections, is not the only victim of this tactic.

A nearly identical filibuster on procedural motions is being waged against a measure that would protect millions of acres of California desert from commercial development.

Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, yesterday pronounced dead a sweeping effort to overhaul the telecommunications industry that had broad bipartisan support but was done in by last-minute "nonnegotiable" demands from Mr. Dole to rewrite it.

Meanwhile, an overhaul of the Superfund for cleaning up hazardous waste sites is considered virtually impossible to pass the Senate because it is subject to Republican amendments that the Democrats don't have the 60 votes to beat.

Republican obstructionism played its most devastating role this year in the failure of Mr. Clinton's health care reform legislation, which is not expected to survive even in a vastly diminished form.

Many Democrats would agree with Mr. Dole's assertion Thursday that the original Clinton plan suffered from its own flaws and tactical mishandling by the White House.

But Republican leaders leaped on the opportunity to land the death blow by refusing to cooperate in the enactment of even a modest proposal that would provide health insurance to children of the working poor.

"We tried to get a bigger package through; [that was] not acceptable," Mr. Harkin said. "We tried to get a slimmed-down package through, not acceptable. Now we are down to kids. If that is not even acceptable to the Republicans, then I think it is clear to the American people that it is the Republicans who will not let us have any measure of health care reform in this country."

Republicans are more than willing to take that chance. Attuned to polls that show Mr. Clinton and his reform efforts unpopular, and watching Democratic incumbents fall in primary elections, the Republicans are willing to risk the short-term label of obstructionist in return for long-term gain of more seats in Congress.

"President Clinton said we would be held accountable if we killed his plan for government-run health care: I hope so," said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican.

In the process, though, something else might be lost by members of a legislative body that has earned increasing contempt from the American people.

"The constant disparagement of this institution by word and deed by those who are members of the institution brings disdain on the Senate and on those who engage in such tactics," Mr. Mitchell said. "We simply have to get to a point where there can be some degree of comity and some degree of cooperation."

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