Conference Battle Escalates

Posted January 30, 2004 at 6:20pm

A number of major policy initiatives being considered by Congress are in jeopardy of not passing this year, potential victims of election-year politics and bitter feelings over the GOP’s decision to exclude Democrats from conference committees.

Vowing retaliation for being excluded from these meetings, Senate Democrats blocked a conference from convening on just-passed pension legislation last week and have identified several other bills they will stall.

In turn, Republicans are now threatening to punish Democrats where it hurts the most, by refusing to fund their appropriations projects in the next fiscal year as well as rejecting other legislative priorities of the minority.

“A tactic like this can put a big question mark on Senators’ individual projects or bills,” said a senior Republican aide, who refused to be named. “It is always a two-way street.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) shot back that Republicans would be wise to be mindful of their rhetoric. “It takes two to tango,” the senior appropriator said.

The fight over the important finishing step in the legislative process began last year when the GOP prevented Democrats from attending energy bill negotiations and insisted that only certain minority Members were allowed to participate in the Medicare drug negotiations. The Medicare bill passed, but the energy bill remains stalled.

“If they had run conference committees like conference committees are supposed to be run, as opposed to dropping people out of them, we wouldn’t have a problem,” said Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.). “It is like, ‘OK, we will create a crisis and we will blame you for the problem.’”

Democrats privately insist they are prepared to prevent such big-ticket items as reauthorization of the welfare bill, a job training bill and Head Start education legislation, from moving forward unless they are given seats at the negotiating table.

At the very least, Democrats will require a pre-conference negotiation with an iron-clad guarantee that legislation will not be altered without their consultation before they allow conferences to meet.

Todd Webster, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), would only say that Democrats will review each bill on a “case-by-case basis.”

Senators from each party charged that their counterparts are engaging in partisan gamesmanship to gain a political advantage in the November elections. The issue is becoming a concern for Republicans, who are mindful that Democrats will criticize their stewardship of the chamber should partisan gridlock shut down the Senate.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) briefed GOP Senators on the situation last week at a regularly scheduled strategy meeting.

“What they are doing is saying that 41 of us will deny you the ability to go to conference unless we get to write the final bill,” McConnell said in an interview. “It is simply unacceptable and will not be allowed.”

While Democrats may attack Republicans for the stewardship of the chamber, GOP leaders have pledged to highlight what they describe as “obstructive” tactics to voters in the coming months.

“If it goes forward, it will be an issue in the campaign,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), vice chairwoman of the Senate GOP Conference. “Just like obstruction was an issue in the last campaign.”

A decision by Democratic leaders to prevent approval of the Department of Homeland Security before the November 2002 elections has been partly blamed for the loss of two Democratic incumbents, Sens. Jean Carnahan (Mo.) and Max Cleland (Ga.), which resulted in the Republican takeover of the majority.

For the time being, both parties are framing the disagreement as a simple matter of fairness and precedent. Webster listed several examples of provisions Republicans wrote into bills ranging from the 2004 catch all omnibus legislation to the energy measure that were not originally approved by the Senate.

“The simple situation to all of this is to go back to the way the Congress has worked for 200 years,” Webster said.

Republicans maintain that Democrats are thwarting the will of the American people, who elected a GOP majority in the Senate.

“The people of our country have elected a Senate that has a majority of Republicans,” Hutchison said. “In the Senate you have to have the ability to get things through, let the majority rule like it or not and go forward.”

In the short term, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) suggested Republicans will search out other ways to accomplish their goals such as seeing “things get jammed into other bills that ultimately do go.

“You are going to see a lot of things go in inordinate routes that they shouldn’t,” Brownback added.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) warned that the long-term consequences could be much more drastic.

“What will happen is, of course, the worm turns and there will be a day when Democrats control both houses and there will be a pay back time,” Dodd said. “I would be opposed to it if Democrats were to try that.

“My fear is this will come around and be a standard in the future,” he added.