Worm Turn in the Senate

March 25, 1995

What goes around, comes around. . . Don't get mad, get even. . . What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. . . How the worm doth turn.

There's many a fine phrase in political lingo to describe how Senate Democrats are seeking revenge on Republican tormentors who converted the rarely used filibuster into a machine gun to mow down liberal legislation. It was only five months ago that Sen. Bob Dole was putting a stranglehold on the Clinton agenda, invoking no less than four filibusters simultaneously as he wound up his tour as minority leader. Now, in his new role as majority leader, he has suffered two straight defeats as Democrats give him some of his own medicine.

Good government advocates, known disparagingly as goo-goos, almost invariably inveigh against the filibuster. In the bad old days, it was used by segregationist Southern senators to block civil rights legislation. But rarely. The Dixiecrats resorted to the filibuster only five times in the '50s.

Then along came Mr. Dole. Confronting an activist Democratic president, he used the filibuster 22 times in 1993 and more than doubled that amount in 1994 by adopting a new tactic. Instead of filibustering substantive legislation only, he used the filibuster again and again to block procedural motions by the Democratic majority.

Last November's elections showed that congressional gridlock was a GOP asset. But now that Mr. Dole is in charge, he is confronted by combative Democrats who are learning to love the filibuster weapon they once loathed.

Three weeks ago, Democrats blocked the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment when Mr. Dole fell one vote short of the 67-vote, two-thirds majority he needed for changes in the Constitution. Then, in a follow-up, he fell two votes shy of the 60 votes he needed to stop the Democrats from using a Dole-style procedural filibuster against GOP efforts to stymie President Clinton's executive order banning the use of permanent strike replacement workers in $100,000-plus government contracts.

This was an important precedent for the Democrats. It displayed willingness to use the Senate's valued protections for minority opinion to fight an avalanche of what Democratic leader Tom Daschle described as "right-wing extremist" legislation soon to come over from the House of Representatives. "We're going to have to confront them (and) we're prepared to do so," he declared.

Senator Dole did not criticize the Democrats for their delaying maneuvers. Instead he limited himself to bitter complaints that Mr. Clinton was playing politics with the striker replacement order to appease organized labor. Which is true enough.

Perhaps, after the Democrats have given the Republicans sufficient tit-for-tat treatment, both parties will work out a sensible arrangement -- one that preserves the Senate as a bulwark against demagogy and inflamed opinion while seeking procedures designed to get the people's work done.

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