Tax Snafu Sparks Fight

GOP Searching for a Scapegoat

Posted May 13, 2003 at 6:43pm

Senate Republicans were looking for a scapegoat Tuesday to blame for the procedural snafu that prevented them from beginning debate Monday on the $350 billion tax package.

So far, their primary culprits are intransigent Democrats and a lone wolf Senate Parliamentarian, Alan Frumin.

“It’s a technically insignificant thing,” Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said of the GOP’s mistake in bringing up a bill that would not be protected from a filibuster by budget rules. “[Democrats] just decided to screw us around and take an extra day.”

Indeed, most Republicans said Democrats were simply causing problems for the measure, which had to be sent back to the Finance panel to be reapproved Tuesday night so that it would fall under budget reconciliation rules that limit debate to 20 hours and require only a simple majority for passage.

But Democrats said Republicans have only themselves to blame.

“We see no reason to accommodate any action that would accelerate [the bill’s] passage,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), whose Caucus overwhelmingly opposes the tax bill. “We think under the rules they already have enough protection” from filibuster.

In addition to lambasting Democrats, some Republicans also questioned why Frumin took it upon himself to identify the problem when Democrats appeared to be unaware of the arcane rule requiring budget reconciliation measures, as the tax bill was designed to be, to follow a specific parliamentary order.

“He could be technically right,” Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said of Frumin’s ruling. “But there’s no need to have a strict interpretation of the rules like that.”

The Senate Parliamentarian’s office, which declined to comment directly, told Nickles’ Budget Committee staff that the bill could be ruled out of order under budget rules just moments before the Senate was to begin debating the measure on Monday.

“[Frumin] called at 10 minutes to two [p.m.] to say that in his opinion it wasn’t a reconciliation bill,” said one senior Senate GOP staffer.

Some GOP aides even hinted that Frumin’s position as Parliamentarian could be in danger if he continued to make rulings that disadvantaged their political goals. His decisions could be crucial in implementing GOP-proposed rule changes that would help them avoid filibusters of judicial nominees.

“He seems intent on burning every bridge,” said one high-level Senate GOP aide, who complained that Republicans seemed to constantly be on the losing end of Frumin’s parliamentary rulings.

Still, some top Republicans disagreed that Frumin had erred.

“The Parliamentarian was correct in his ruling,” said Nickles.

The problem actually began with the Finance Committee’s consideration of the tax measure last week. In an attempt to create a symbolic linkage to President Bush’s original $726 billion tax-cut plan rather than the $350 billion measure they were forced to compromise on with Senate GOP moderates, Senate Republican leaders told Grassley to approve modifications to the tax bill within the president’s bill, which Nickles introduced as S.2 in late February.

“We did exactly what the leadership of the Senate wanted us to do, which was touting the number of the bill that would be the administration’s tax package,” said Grassley. “That’s why we amended the administration’s bill.”

By using S.2, the Senate GOP leadership also hoped to show continuity with the House, which passed its $550 billion tax cut as H.R.2.

But that is what ultimately created the parliamentary hurdle that Democrats exploited to delay the measure’s floor consideration by nearly two days and potentially force the Senate to remain in this weekend to finish work on a Africa AIDS relief measure.

Because Nickles introduced the tax cut bill before the budget resolution, which included instructions for the Finance Committee to approve the $350 billion measure, S.2 could not be considered a “reconciliation” bill that is protected from filibuster, the parliamentarian ruled.

Customarily, the Finance panel writes reconciliation bills in committee markup and gives them a new bill number before they come to the floor, thus satisfying the budget resolution’s instructions.

Budget ranking member Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Democrats seized on the error to make a larger point — that the budget rules Republicans hoped to use to sidestep what would otherwise be a certain Democratic filibuster were only intended to reduce the national deficit, not increase it, as the tax bill would.

“We’re not going to let them operate outside the rules when we think they’re abusing the rules to begin with,” he said. “Whether it was someone trying to pull a fast one or just a mistake, it was clearly outside the rules.”

When Republicans realized the error Monday afternoon, floor staff floated a number of possible options to Democrats, such as deeming the bill reconciliation or bringing up the House-passed measure and amending it with the Senate language.

But Democrats said they were not in any mood to help out Republicans.

“They screwed up, and they wanted us to fix the problem,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “They wanted us to give them [unanimous consent] to make something that wasn’t a reconciliation bill into a reconciliation bill. We hardly jerked them around.”

But Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) insisted, “It’s a delaying tactic. This kind of thing could have easily been fixed on the floor by unanimous consent.”

Democrats reacted angrily to Republican attempts to place the blame on them, particularly since Democrats had agreed on Monday to allow the Finance panel to quickly reapprove a suitable reconciliation measure.

“If we had known this is how it was going to go, we would have just had a full-out new markup. … And started throwing amendments at them,” said one Senate Democratic aide.