Stop the Games

Posted January 14, 2003 at 5:46pm

So much for the sunny rhetoric of late December from Senate leaders of both parties that they were ready to get to work on a bipartisan basis right from the start of the 108th Congress. As Roll Call went to press last night, neither side had been willing to budge in negotiations on a resolution to organize Senate committees, delaying progress on real business. The confirmation hearing for Homeland Security Secretary-designate Tom Ridge has already been delayed and there has been little, if any, progress on the 11 appropriations bills left from last year.

As usual, there’s plenty of blame to go around. As the most senior Democrat in the chamber, Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.) hasn’t been a model of exemplary behavior in the wake of his party getting knocked out of the majority. Upset about being ousted as President Pro Tem and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Byrd initially dug in his heels and refused to vacate his office space in the Capitol for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Insiders say the pettiness rankled Stevens and may not bode well for getting this year’s appropriations process off to a good start.

This seems to signal a general reluctance among Democrats to admit defeat in the midterm elections. That spirit has prevented Republicans from assuming committee gavels and left some freshmen without committee assignments. “They want to hold on to the gavels a little longer, even though they lost last November,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday, comparing the scene to a power struggle in a Third World country.

But we also find it troubling that Senate Republicans, led by new Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), have taken a hard line on committee funding. Republicans are insisting on a funding split of two-thirds to one-third, hardly an equitable breakdown when the GOP holds just a 51-49 edge in the chamber. When Democrats had a 51-49 edge last year, they secured only slightly more than half of the committee funds. It seems only fair to use a similar formula this time.

“If it was good for a 51-49 Senate a month ago, it ought to be good for a 51-49 Senate today,” Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) noted on Monday.

Frist does not have to take our word for it on the funding issue. He can simply listen to two of his committee chairmen, GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and John McCain (Ariz.), who have worked out equitable deals with their Democratic counterparts at the Judiciary and Commerce, Science and Transportation panels.

Republicans insist that since committee funding does not expire until the end of February, the organizing resolution should pass now and then funding can be settled later. But the Senate can’t afford to do half the job now and then waste more time on a fight over money next month. It’s time to get both issues nipped in the bud. In short, it’s time to govern.