Dayton, Lott Spar

Posted September 10, 2003 at 6:30pm

In an unusual display of personal payback, Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) placed holds on all judicial nominees from Mississippi last week to punish Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) for siding with a powerful airline in a high-stakes fight over jet engine noise.

Placing a hold on executive and judicial nominations is now a common practice in the Senate, where partisan politics seems to dictate the chamber’s day-to-day activities. But rarely does a Senator single out a colleague for personal retribution.

In the Dayton-Lott dustup, though, it is just as much about legislative gamesmanship as it is payback. A puzzled Lott said the only Mississippi judge who has been nominated is U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, who has been nominated for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Lott noted that the Judiciary Committee has not yet even held a hearing on him — though they may do so soon. (See related story.)

Dayton is angry with Lott for inserting a provision into the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that limits the use of federal dollars to help pay to soundproof homes surrounding the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The issue appears to be resolved, but it pitted Dayton and residents living near the airport against Northwest Airlines, a regular ally of the Minnesota Senator on just about every issue except this one.

Dayton claims Lott did the bidding of Northwest, who prefers using federal funds to help boost security measures instead of paying for a noise abatement project it once supported.

“Senator Lott was the person who put into the conference report the provision that harms the Minnesota apartment [dwellers] and homeowners living around the airport,” an unapologetic Dayton said. “I just thought that was an unwarranted intrusion into the well-being of my constituents.”

His anger about the provision jumps off the page of a Sept. 3 letter he sent to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.), when he informed the Democratic leader of his intent to block just about every nomination with the exception of military and Homeland Security Department nominees because of his displeasure over this issue. While Dayton gave all other judicial nominees a free pass, he spelled it out very clearly that his goal would be to block all judges from the Magnolia State.

“I also object to all judicial nominations from the state of Mississippi,” Dayton wrote unequivocally.

Lott, for his part, defended his action by saying that federal dollars should not be used to help soundproof homes and buildings beyond the area where current federal decibel standards are already established.

“It wasn’t that I was taking a shot at Minneapolis,” Lott said. “I was saying ‘Minneapolis, you can’t have an exception for this kind of thing or it would never end.’ If you do that airport money will be used on walls and insulation beyond Crystal City,” the cluster of office buildings, restaurants and shops near Washington Reagan National Airport in Virginia.

Dayton’s holds were released earlier this week, when the issue was resolved. And Lott said there are no hard feelings on his part, although he offered a slight jab at the Minnesota Democrat.

“I don’t think he understands what he was doing there,” Lott said. “I think he was trying to get results that were very important to him.”

Many Capitol Hill insiders took notice of Dayton taking such bold action. The Minnesota Democrat is viewed as a quiet legislator, a Senator who is still learning the political and legislative ropes.

“He went after Northwest Airlines, a major employer in his state,” said a Senate Democratic aide. “How smart is that?”

Even Sen. Norm Coleman (R), who described his fellow Minnesotan as a “friend,” said he would have approached the issue from a different angle.

“I would have counseled my friend — Senator Dayton is my friend — to resolve the problem,” said Coleman. “This is a relationship business and at some point you may need something from some of those Senators on the committee and they might not be happy.”

But Dayton’s Democratic colleagues said they are not surprised by his in-your-face approach on this issue.

“Mark is a very passionate guy and feels very strongly about certain things and he expresses himself in our Caucus in a very assertive way on some of these issues,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “He has emerged as somebody, although quiet, who has a great passion about certain issues. He is tenacious.”

Dayton said he plans to act just as aggressively on issues in the future, particularly if he thinks they warrant employing attention-grabbing tactics.

“If somebody is going to harm my constituents, they are going to have a lion to contend with,” Dayton said.

It appears that Dayton is staying true to his word. He continues to maintain a hold along with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) on Thomas Dorr, who has been nominated to be undersecretary of agriculture for rural development, because the administration has failed to forward Dayton information he requested about the nominee.

And just as Dayton released his blanket hold this week, he immediately placed new holds on Albert Casey and James Miller, both of whom have been nominated to be governors for the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors. Dayton is waiting for the Postal Service to schedule two meetings about issues he said are important to Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved forward on his threat this week to put a hold on all of the White House’s nonmilitary nominees until the administration agrees to nominate his senior science staffer, Greg Jaczko, for a seat on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.