Jewish World Review March 31, 2002 / 18 Nisan, 5762
John H. Fund
Last week, the majority leader rammed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill through the Senate. Threats of a GOP filibuster crumbled after Sen. Daschle ordered 12 flowered cots brought to the cloakroom. He even released an hour-by-hour list of senators prepared to preside over the chamber during the wee hours of any GOP talkathon. Republicans didn't have the 40 votes needed to sustain a filibuster, but did they really have to fold with a whimper and without more than a perfunctory debate?
The White House and Senate Republicans say that avoiding conflict in the Senate squares with the public's antipathy to squabbling in Washington, but the party may pay a price if such risk-averse tactics drive down enthusiasm among its base voters in November.
The Senate filibuster--in which one or more members delay debate or block legislation by just talking it to death--was most famously employed by Southern Democrats in the 1950s to block civil rights bills. Sen. Strom Thurmond still holds the record for a 24 hour, 18 minute filibuster in 1957.
Today that kind of drama almost never happens. But Senators often invoke the threat of it to secure leverage over legislation. The undisputed masters of such threats are still Democrats, but this time they are liberals: Mr. Daschle and his lieutenants. Their brilliant monkey-wrench tactics have ground President Bush's agenda to a complete halt. Some Republicans think it's time to pay the Democrats a compliment by emulating them. One senator suggests they rent a tape of Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" for some inspiration on how to use a filibuster to focus and mobilize public opinion.
Democrats have certainly done enough damage to the Bush agenda by threatening Senate slowdowns. Last year, the Senate failed to pass President Bush's original stimulus package after Democrats promised a filibuster because it accelerated some tax cuts. The president's energy bill is stalled, with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts pledging a filibuster if oil and gas exploration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is included in the bill.
As for judges, it's true the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a fair number of Bush appointees to district judgeships. But many appointees to the more important circuit courts haven't even had a hearing, although Mr. Bush appointed at least eight last May. The hearings that have been held have been bitter and contentious. On a party-line vote the committee rejected Judge Charles Pickering, a nominee to the Fifth Circuit. It then refused to give him a floor vote, largely because a majority of senators would've voted him onto the bench.
"We are approaching the potential for a real stalemate on Senate business," says Sen. John Breaux, a moderate Louisiana Democrat, who cautions the Republicans against "payback" for what they view as obstructionism.
Minority Leader Trent Lott complains bitterly about the dilatory tactics Mr. Daschle has been employing. "The Senate is downright dysfunctional," he says. The only bills that have passed so far this year are a farm bill that largely benefits key Democratic senators from the Midwest and the campaign-finance bill that 38 of 49 Senate Republicans opposed. Among the bills that hadn't come to the Senate floor for a vote before it began its Easter break are an energy bill, an increase in the debt limit, trade promotion authority and a border-security and immigration measure.
Last week, a peeved Mr. Lott briefly blocked some Senate committees from meeting. His anger at the rejection of Mr. Pickering, his fellow Mississippian, led him to block a former Daschle aide's confirmation to the Federal Communications Commission. Such symbolic acts are likely to accomplish little, and Mr. Lott's complaints verge on what psychologists call passive-aggressive behavior. "I'm willing to forgive [the Democrats] for they know not what they did, perhaps. But [my response] probably is going to be ratcheted up as we go forward if they don't change their conduct," he told Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
But several members believe Mr. Lott and Senate Republicans signaled weakness last year when they first entered into an unequal power-sharing agreement with Democrats when the Senate was split 50-50. Then when the Democrats assumed majority status after Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords declared his independence, Mr. Lott passed up an opportunity to filibuster new committee assignments unless he received assurances that Democrats would allow timely votes on Bush judicial nominees.
Of course, it may be true that Mr. Lott wouldn't have been able to hold his troops together on an arcane issue like judicial confirmations--especially when White House backing didn't materialize. GOP Minority Whip Don Nickles agreed that "threatening filibusters is not the way" to gain leverage.
Perhaps, but given the extent of the Senate's current paralysis, an old-fashioned filibuster may now be the best strategy. In 1995, Majority Leader Bob Dole allowed Democrats to filibuster and delay a vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment for five weeks. Then when the line-item veto became an issue he was confronted by conservative senators demanding he toughen his tactics. Mr. Dole realized he could use the threat of a filibuster to push forward legislation as well as block it. He made it clear to Democrats they would be staying up all night in a talkathon. The line-item veto became law, although the Supreme Court later declared it unconstitutional.
Of course, Republicans are now the minority party. But when Mr. Daschle was minority leader from 1995 to 2001, he showed how it is possible to "win by losing," forcing the Senate to take up liberal issues like prescription drug benefits and school construction funding.
Pollsters agree that the GOP tends to see a steeper decline in turnout than Democrats among its base voters when distinctions between the parties are blurred, as they were in 1998, when Senate Republicans failed to pass a tax cut and didn't even force Democrats to go on record against it. The GOP failed to pick up Senate seats. Republicans could similarly risk seeing their voters stay home this year if Democrats continue to support the war while not paying a price for blocking the Bush domestic agenda.
Some senators believe it's especially important to draw bright lines on issues when Senate control this fall hinges on a single vote. They think it could make smart politics to put Democratic senators on the spot by forcing them to take stands on expanding individual retirement accounts or making it easier for small businesses to offer health insurance.
So far the signs have been that the White House was resigning itself to a Daschle-dominated, do-nothing Senate this year. President Bush's must-do list was slim: an energy bill and trade promotion authority, which passed. But even those bills could be in jeopardy if Mr. Daschle is emboldened by Republican passivity.
Trent Lott loves order, continuity and predictability. He will carefully straighten out a tangled telephone cord if he uses a colleague's phone. He clearly has little use for those colleagues who want to throw parliamentary bombs like the filibuster. But by repeating the same play-it-safe strategy he employed before the 1998 elections, he risks the kind of continuity he won't like, Republicans remaining a minority in the
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