Frist’s Recent Problems Rooted In Senate Rules

Posted April 29, 2003 at 5:37pm

The House is from Mars; the Senate is from Venus. Any student of Congress who has spent time in and around the two institutions knows that they are like men and women — from the same species (homo legislatus, in this case) but different in anatomy and temperament. [IMGCAP(1)]

So the current bitter dispute between the two bodies, and the particular animosity House Republicans have exhibited toward their Senate GOP leadership colleagues, is nothing new — although the depth of animus, and the involvement of the more sober-minded and mild-mannered Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), is striking and unusual.

The basic friction now stems from two areas of dispute, the budget/tax-cut package, and the supplemental appropriations bill. From the perspective of the House Republicans, they struggled to accommodate the Senate and come up with a bicameral budget resolution, trimming the president’s $726 billion tax-cut proposal to $550 billion in the House and $350 billion in the Senate, with the understanding they would go to conference, jack up the number to $550 billion, and push for its approval as a take-it-or-leave-it matter in both houses after a long lobbying effort by the president.

Then, to their shock and dismay, the Senate leaders — Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) — cut a backroom deal with two recalcitrant Republicans, Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio), trimming the effective tax-cut total to $350 billion, period. The House Republicans thought they had an agreement with the Senate to leave open the chance to get to the $550 billion level. They were doubly furious because they heard about the Senate side deal when Grassley announced it on the Senate floor.

Here was the reaction of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas): “This goes right to the heart of our ability to work together as a House and a Senate, our ability to trust each other, to trust deals that are being made.” Hastert said he was outraged and joined with President Bush to refuse to settle for anything less than $550 billion in cuts.

Then there was the counter-reaction of Grassley to the House Republicans, in a column he sent to Iowa newspapers: “They proved tantrums aren’t restricted to the two years and younger crowd.”

Next came the emergency supplemental appropriations bill to fund the war in Iraq. House leaders thought they had an agreement to expedite passage of the bill by leaving out any extras, the kinds of extraneous projects and proposals that are tempting for individual lawmakers to add to a spending bill that is certain to be signed into law. House leaders cracked the whip to hold the line against the add-ons — then watched in dismay as the Senate blithely ignored their admonitions and outrage and tacked on a slew of individual items. The House took castor oil and watched the Senate drink its champagne. When the House leaders resisted, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said (humorously, I think) to The Washington Post’s Dan Morgan of his House colleagues, “I’m just sorry they repealed the law on dueling. I’d have shot a couple of the [expletives].” Of course, he later called Hastert and DeLay “close friends,” saying, “There’s no real animosity.” Right.

In some respects, this is déjà vu all over again. In 1993, majority House Democrats took their own version of castor oil for the president, supporting a controversial BTU tax as part of their budget — only to see the Senate remove it in a deal cut with the president, leaving them to explain their votes to angry constituents and lobbyists without even getting the policy benefits or revenues in return. Now it is majority House Republicans walking out on the plank and seeing Senate Republicans saw it off behind them.

The problem is rooted in institutional differences. The House is fundamentally a collective body, with a culture and rules that minimize the role of individual, rank-and-file Members, give real leverage to strong leaders, underscore party loyalty, and make it hard for dissident forces to mobilize, block action as a lever to force changes or negotiations, or offer alternatives that can be designed to lure away votes from the majority leadership. Debate, and freedom of action, are seriously constrained.

The Senate is fundamentally an individual body, with a culture and rules that maximize the role and power of every Senator. The Senate basically operates via unanimous consent, making not just consensus but unanimity a prerequisite for much of its action. Formal rules — such as Rule XXII (the filibuster), which gives enormous influence to minorities in the Senate — are joined by informal procedures (the hold) that give enormous influence over policy actions and confirmations for executive positions or judgeships to every individual Senator.

The cult of the individual in the Senate is by the framers’ design. Protection of minority rights and viewpoints, and a desire to discourage a rush to judgment or action spurred by an emotional or impetuous majority sentiment, led directly to the Senate as it is.

To Senators, the nature and culture of their body, and the political realities that flow from it, are second nature. When Sens. Frist, Grassley and Nickles confronted their own budget realities, they saw that they would not and could not get Senators Snowe and Voinovich to budge on the budget as they had drafted it, without a side deal. They had neither the rules nor the formal powers, nor the informal means, to force two strong-willed individuals to wilt. Their option was failure to pass a budget at all on the Senate floor. As Grassley said, “Senator Frist had to view it the same way I viewed it. Were we better with no tax cut at all or a $350 billion tax cut? Were we better with no budget at all or with a budget?”

The unhappiness of Hastert, DeLay, Blunt et al. with the Senate leadership and the Senate followership is matched by unhappiness in the White House, which has been issuing unveiled threats to new Majority Leader Frist that he had better shape up or else. But the problem is not Frist; it is the Senate. And it is a problem vastly exacerbated by the White House strategy since Sept. 11, 2001, which has alienated and infuriated Senate Democrats and united them (except for Zell Miller of Georgia) into an effective opposition force of 48 in a body where 60 votes are needed to make most things happen. If Frist is pushed or coerced into ignoring Senate rules or imposing a new set of informal procedures on the body to make it more like the House and more majoritarian, there will be a fierce backlash.

When then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) was getting ready to retire from the Senate, he met with baseball team owners to consider the possibility of becoming commissioner of baseball. One of his friends tried to dissuade him, saying, “George, if you took that job, you would have to deal on a daily basis with 28 of the most arrogant, out-of-control egotists in America.” Mitchell replied, “That would be a 72 percent reduction in my current job.” Like it or not, that is the nature of the Senate, and it will not change appreciably. House Republicans — and the White House — better get used to that, and alter their outlook and their strategies accordingly.