Democrats Push Conference Changes

Posted February 4, 2004 at 5:46pm

Seeking to deflect criticism over Republican claims of obstructionism, Senate Democrats are proposing several options that would allow Congress to approve legislation and bypass the politically charged feud over conference committees.

The proposals, which are being dismissed by Republicans as a political ploy, would assure Democrats that legislation sent to conference would not be altered if they are shut out of the negotiating meetings between the House and Senate.

“We simply are not going to repeat the very unacceptable conditions that were forced upon us last year,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said in an interview Wednesday.

Daschle is suggesting that Republicans and Democrats work out their differences in a pre-conference — an informal meeting of lawmakers — before the GOP ratifies the agreement in the formal conference committee.

Another option would be for the Senate to pass a bill and send it directly to the House to allow that chamber to approve an identical bill to match the Senate measure. The legislation could then be sent to President Bush for his signature without a formal conference committee.

Democrats note that in the 108th Congress alone, 19 bills were passed without the need for a conference committee. In the 107th Congress, 51 bills were sent to the White House for Bush’s signature without a conference.

“It is a high-risk strategy fraught with political peril, but it is one that Senate Democrats are willing to engage in,” a senior Democratic aide said of the legislative strategy.

Indeed, Republicans are resisting Daschle’s proposal and accused their Democratic colleagues of trying to circumvent the legislative process for partisan gain.

“What we may be seeing is a new technique of obstructionism,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), chairman of the Republican Steering Committee. “Tom Daschle knows the rules and this could be an unprecedented policy of trying to dictate conferences before they occur and if that is so, which we have indications it maybe is, that is not acceptable.”

Republican leaders told rank-and-file lawmakers last week at a closed-door strategy session that they needed to prepare for the possibility Senate Democrats would shut down the legislative process if the GOP does not give in to their demands.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he had no plans right now to diverge from the bicameral meetings convened to negotiate details between House and Senate bills.

“We are going to keep using the regular order of conference committees,” Frist said.

Democratic Senators currently are preventing a conference on pension legislation from meeting, which has drawn the scorn of Republicans. Democrats said they would continue employing this parliamentary tactic until they are given a seat at the negotiating table.

A Democratic leadership aide charged that in the past Republicans altered major pieces of legislation including the omnibus appropriations bill, Medicare prescription drug legislation and the still-languishing energy bill.

“It can’t be a question of blind trust,” said the aide. “We are not going to allow the abuses that happened last year happen again.”

Tension between the two parties has already been heightened because it is a presidential election year and control of the Congressional majority is on the line. Republicans are under pressure to help Bush deliver on his legislative agenda, while Democrats are trying to prove to their political base that the minority can stand up to the GOP.

House Republicans have a much easier task than their Senate counterparts, who operate under a different set of rules that grant the minority powerful veto power as long as they can sustain at least 41 votes. This increases pressure on Senate Democrats, who are expected to prevent Bush from muscling legislation through Congress that is opposed by its political base.

Daschle would not rule out allowing the bicameral negotiating sessions to meet in the future, but said he told First on Tuesday that in order to do so he needs to be “assured that Democrats can be engaged in the conference and that the Republicans will insist that we have that opportunity to be engaged and be participants.”

“It is only our strategy if they are not willing to allow us to be the partners that the institution requires,” Daschle said.