Parties reach deal to run Senate jointly

Democrats gain equal membership on committees

`At the very least, historic'

Senior Republicans fear plan will lead to further deadlock

January 06, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Over the strenuous objections of senior Republicans, Senate Democrats won unprecedented equal membership yesterday on committees and the power to advance legislation, reflecting their equal numbers in the 50-50 Senate.

Under an agreement struck by Senate leaders, Republicans will retain the majority - and some majority powers - because Vice President-elect Dick Cheney will be able to break ties in their favor after he is sworn into office Jan. 20. The committees will also be led by Republican chairmen.

But the concessions won by Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle will give his party so much more power than is typically shared with the minority that many Republicans said they feared the result would be a paralysis for which their party would be blamed.

"There's no question some people in our Republican conference don't like this," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said.

"But we've done the best we could. I think it was a pretty good achievement, frankly."

Lott had been under enormous pressure to forge an agreement with the Democrats, who were threatening to block Senate business until a power-sharing deal was reached - and have enough votes to do so.

Daschle called the arrangement "at the very least, historic," if not "miraculous," and praised Lott for his courage. "It's fair to say he had a harder time than I did" in winning agreement from colleagues for the deal, Daschle said. "They were in the majority in the last Congress. They had to come to a realization about the change in circumstances."

The full Senate approved the agreement, negotiated over weeks by Lott and Daschle, by unanimous consent, which freed those who were unhappy with it from having to cast a roll-call vote.

Several Republican committee chairmen took to the Senate floor, however, to complain about Lott's decision to grant Democrats an equal number of seats on every committee. The chairmen argued that they were being denied the guaranteed majority of at least one vote that would ensure their control of committee actions.

Under the agreement, if a committee deadlocks on a tie vote, either the Republican chairman or the senior Democrat on it could bring legislation or a nomination to the floor. Under traditional rules, a tie vote in committee would mean defeat.

Lott and Daschle also agreed that Republicans and Democrats will have equal budgets for committee staffs, which do much of the work in drafting legislation.

"This is about as close to the 50-50 yard line as we could get," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. "I think we will find we can work together."

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democrats' leader on the Agriculture Committee and the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said he looks forward to having a greater say in the farm bill and a prescription drug benefit to Medicare recipients.

But conservative Republicans had hoped to enact many of their proposals now that the White House is about to come under Republican control. To them, Lott's concessions seemed to be a sell-out. Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Republican whip, who has frequently challenged Lott's position, told his colleagues that he was "troubled by breaking the precedent of the Senate," which has never been run under such a power-sharing arrangement.

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the chairman of the Banking Committee, complained that he and other Republican chairmen were being given the responsibility of leadership without the authority to get their work done.

Little gets done in the Senate unless there is broad consensus. Senate rules grant some power to those with minority views. Often a single senator can tie up the body for weeks on legislation or prevent a presidential nomination from reaching a vote.

Republicans also have discovered during their control of the Senate that it is impossible to move contentious legislation through without the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

Even so, some Republicans complained privately that Lott had given away too much to Daschle. They argued that Lott should have waited until Cheney took office and then continued to run the Senate as though Republicans still had a clear majority.

But without yesterday's deal, the Democrats, temporarily in control of the Senate because Vice President Al Gore, as president of the Senate, gives them a tie-breaking vote until Jan. 20, were threatening to tie up the Senate indefinitely with a filibuster.

That would have threatened the confirmation process for President-elect George W. Bush's Cabinet nominees and perhaps sabotaged his first crucial months in office. Bush did not inject himself into the debate, Lott said, but made clear that he expected the Senate leaders to resolve the issue.

The two leaders put aside the question of how the arrangement might apply to the joint Senate-House conference committees.

They were also under pressure from the 11 newly elected senators, who could not be given committee assignments until it was known how many committee seats each party would get.

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