Senate Immediately Faces a Stalemate

Posted January 7, 2003 at 6:46pm

A spat over staff funding and prized office space delayed the Senate from organizing Tuesday, leaving Democrats in charge of the chamber’s 19 committees but Republicans in solid control of the floor.

The dispute threatens to stall confirmation hearings for key Cabinet nominees to head the newly created Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury Department, as well as President Bush’s choice to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. This internal fight could also hamper Republican efforts to score some early legislative victories before Bush delivers his State of the Union address at the end of the month.

“If they don’t cede ground we are not going to get anywhere,” a senior Senate Democratic aide warned. “We will stand still and I think Americans expect progress.”

“They may control the committees for a moment in time, but we control the floor,” shot back Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

Democrats are calling on Republicans to agree to a funding and office space deal that is reflective of the GOP’s 51-to-49 operating margin.

“The funding should reflect the actual division here,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who will serve as the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this year. “I think that is a fair way to proceed regardless of who is in charge.”

But many Republicans want the Senate to revert back to historic precedent when the majority party would control two-thirds of the committee budget and most of the committee office space.

“I am a chairman and I am digging in, but I may not be successful,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the next chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee who supports a two-third to one-third funding split.

Republican chairmen met Monday to review the committee funding situation and will further discuss the topic at the GOP’s retreat scheduled for today at the Library of Congress, Republican Senators and top aides said.

Republicans said there is likely room for some negotiating but most incoming chairmen added they are waiting to see how talks between Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) proceed on the matter.

“We are waiting for our leader to give us the signal,” said Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who is slated to take the Foreign Relations reins when the situation is resolved.

At least two incoming chairmen have already struck their own funding deals with the ranking members on their respective panels. Incoming Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) agreed last year to keep funding levels evenly divided regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections.

“It is basically 50-50 with a small amount for the chairman because he has to hire the people to answer the phones and turn the lights on,” said Leahy, who is slated to be the committee’s ranking member.

And incoming Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he is about to finalize a plan with Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) to give the GOP a 55 percent to 45 percent funding edge on his panel.

McCain said he doesn’t think a funding split that gives the majority more than 55 percent is fair “with a one-vote majority in the Senate.” Hollings has agreed to allow McCain to chair a hearing today on global warming.

Frist and Daschle said in separate interviews Tuesday that the negotiations are ongoing, but offered no insight as to when the issue might be resolved. But Daschle said Democrats would not hand over the committee gavels until a deal is struck.

“That is the rule,” Daschle said.

White House officials are keeping an eye on the situation but are not taking part in the negotiations, sources said. Still, an administration official chastised Democrats for refusing to budge on the organizing resolution.

“We just had an election that said we need to work together to get things done,” said the official. “I think the last thing they want to be seen [as] is blocking progress on getting things done.”

One of the most delicate committee negotiations is likely to occur on the Select Intelligence Committee, where incoming Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the ranking member, are discussing the panel’s constitution in the 108th Congress. Roberts said Rockefeller sent him a letter before the midterm elections suggesting the majority party control two-thirds of the panel’s funding in the new Congress and the staff be split along party lines.

Currently, the committee staff is relatively nonpartisan. Roberts said he rejected the proposal last year and vowed to continue to fight the changes even though he will become the committee chairman and could benefit from a more partisan split.

“I just don’t think that would serve the committee’s interest,” Roberts said. “I think it would make the intelligence community more hesitant to testify in an atmosphere where they hope that it is bipartisan.”

Roberts added, “If you have it broken down where you have Republicans asking certain questions and Democrats asking certain questions and if there is a divide, which there apparently is because every presidential hopeful on their side has now said the war on terrorism is a campaign issue … I think is terribly counterproductive.”

Rockefeller would not discuss the situation in detail, but acknowledged writing Roberts the letter. “It is in the hands of the leaders now,” he said.

The Senate’s inability to pass the organizing resolution also means the chamber’s 11 new Members sworn into office Tuesday will be without committee assignments until the situation is resolved.