Republicans, Democrats wrestle to control Senate

Partisan maneuvering stalls work of committees

January 15, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Even though Republicans won control of the Senate in November's elections, Democrats are refusing to surrender power, leaving the Senate paralyzed.

Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, accused the Democrats yesterday of staging an "attempted coup right here on the floor of the United States Senate."

The deadlock demonstrates that the Democrats, even though a minority, are willing to employ a political scorched-earth strategy, threatening two years of gridlock in Congress before the 2004 elections.

At issue are staffing and funding the committees, which fashion legislation, hold oversight hearings and generally operate as the machinery of the Senate.

Democrats want to split committee funding 51 percent to 49 percent, with Republicans controlling the larger share, commensurate with their Senate membership. The arrangement would be similar to the deal Democrats gave Republicans over the past year and a half when they held the majority, thanks to Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who switched from Republican to an independent voting with Democrats.

"What we want is to be treated the same way we treated the minority during the last Congress," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

But Republicans say the Jeffords-driven situation was extraordinary, as was the 50-50 partisan split that preceded it, and they want to return to past practice, when the majority party controlled more of the money and bigger staffs.

Until the dispute is resolved, Democrats are blocking a committee-reorganization resolution that would name Republican committee chairmen.

The deadlock prompted Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, to cancel a hearing with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, because he doesn't wield the committee's gavel.

A confirmation hearing set for today for Tom Ridge, President Bush's nominee to head the new Department of Homeland Security, also was postponed because the White House did not want Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, to chair the session.

Lieberman, who announced Monday that he is running for president in 2004, has agreed to gavel open a new confirmation hearing for Ridge on Friday and then let Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, the Republican chairman-in-waiting, run the session.

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee threatened yesterday to keep the Senate in session next week during the weeklong Martin Luther King Jr. birthday recess if the dispute is not resolved.

Republicans filed a motion yesterday to end the debate, a move that would require 60 votes to succeed. At least nine Democrats would have to vote with Republicans, unlikely on an issue split along party lines.

Senators warned darkly that failure to resolve the dispute quickly would end any chance that bipartisanship might speed legislation through the Senate. With 60 votes needed to approve most major bills, a lack of cooperation between the parties would doom most initiatives.

"This is not only regrettable, but as it drags on it represents the kind of sandbox silliness that prompts folks to wonder if this body is the United States Senate or a partisan Romper Room," said Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who has been unable to take over as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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