Majority Republicans find job harder than expected

Internal strife interferes with ambitious agenda

November 30, 2003|By Jill Zuckman | Jill Zuckman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - As Republican lawmakers wrapped up the first year in a half-century in which they controlled the Senate, House and White House, they discovered, as Democrats had before them, how hard it is to govern even with possession of the White House and slim majorities in Congress.

Congress left town last week with one major Republican-driven accomplishment, a Medicare prescription drug bill; and one big disappointment for GOP leaders, dead energy legislation.

Lawmakers also delivered a long-promised ban on certain types of abortion procedures and further cut taxes.

But they were unable to finish work on other priorities, including seven spending bills, a rewrite of the Head Start program, an Internet tax moratorium, a class action lawsuit overhaul, a corporate tax measure, medical malpractice reform and other tax, trade and pension items.

GOP leaders failed to accomplish those things despite shutting out Democrats from much of the legislative process. Their narrow majorities - 51-48 in the Senate and 229-205 in the House, with one Democratic-leaning independent in each chamber - still presented challenges.

The Republicans blamed what they called the obstructionism of the Democratic minority. "We could have been more successful if we'd had bipartisan cooperation," said Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho.

But in many ways, Republicans were hardly united themselves, and the year revealed the internal fissures that can emerge when one party is no longer unified by trying to unseat the other.

The Republicans' successes were hard-fought and resulted from overcoming those divisions - sometimes barely - and they failed when they were unable to overcome the divisions.

The two New Hampshire Republican senators, Judd Gregg and John E. Sununu, led the efforts to block the energy bill, which they viewed as harmful to the Northeast and which other critics derided as a giveaway to special interests. Proponents said it would create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

In the House and the Senate, conservative Republicans refused to vote for the Medicare drug bill, complaining about its high cost and expansion of government. The House vote on it lasted an unprecedented three hours because House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois was busy twisting recalcitrant Republicans' arms.

Ever since Harry S. Truman galvanized his 1948 presidential bid by railing against the "do-nothing" Congress, lawmakers have lived in fear of that label.

"People just say, `Well, you're in control, you should get things done,'" said Mike Franc, vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "They don't appreciate the Senate's need for a supermajority and the things the minority can do to sabotage things. That's inside baseball."

The supermajority Franc was referring to is the provision allowing 40 of the 100 senators, if they band together, to use procedural tactics to block legislation. For example, 57 senators supported the energy bill, but that was not enough to push it through.

Life was not supposed to be so difficult for the Republicans. Despite their thin margin after seizing control of the Senate two years ago, they outlined an ambitious agenda. To speed it through, they shut out Democrats from offering amendments in the House or participating in House-Senate negotiations.

That left the Republicans to argue among themselves behind closed doors.

Hastert was forced to call in Vice President Dick Cheney to referee the acrimonious energy conference committee, where lawmakers from the House and Senate were charged with combining their two bills.

Republican leaders had believed it would be easier to reach a deal without the Democrats. Instead, Republican lawmakers from the Midwest, who favored subsidies for ethanol production, clashed with Republican lawmakers from the West, who wanted to abolish the subsidies.

Ultimately, the package crafted by the Republicans could not survive a coalition of Democrats and rebellious Republicans in the Senate.

During negotiations over Medicare and prescription drugs, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas of California was continually at odds with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and frequently excoriated anyone who disagreed with him.

Eventually, the negotiations broke down, with no progress for two weeks as lawmakers argued over requiring hospitals to get competitive bids for bedpans and other durable medical equipment.

That forced Hastert, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas to step in and resolve the final sticking points themselves.

"It was harder than they thought," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who blames Republicans for subverting the process of legislating. "You're just inviting the kind of turmoil you're seeing."

Nevertheless, Republicans have won the opportunity to brag about giving senior citizens a prescription drug benefit after years of inaction.

"They have had problems," said Darrell West, a Brown University political science professor. "But when the history is written on this era, the Medicare bill is going to be considered landmark legislation."

The last time one party controlled the House, Senate and White House, the life of a majority party legislator was not much better. In 1993 and 1994, Democrats were in charge of Congress and Bill Clinton was president.

Like Republicans today, the Democrats had an ambitious agenda: overhauling the nation's heath care system, enacting a major crime bill and passing an economic package. But the Democratic ascent invigorated the GOP.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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