New Power for Frist on Hold

Moderates Oppose Change

Posted September 10, 2004 at 5:43pm

Eager to present a unified front heading into the November elections, Senate Republicans have temporarily delayed consideration of a controversial proposal that would grant the GOP leader more say over rank-and-file lawmakers’ committee assignments.

The nascent plan is facing stiff opposition from the moderate wing of the Republican Conference and others, who view it as a way to punish Senators if they do not toe the party line.

“I am going to fight going down that path,” vowed Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). “I am very troubled by this trend.”

A Republican Conference task force has been exploring the merits of the issue since late June, but it has failed so far to reach a consensus on how best to address it. While the proposal is not completely defined, the general idea would be to rewrite internal Conference rules to give the GOP leader the power to appoint Senators to committees. This would allow the Republican leader to reward Senators who supported the party’s position most consistently, but would also have the net result of punishing those who did not.

Proponents of the measure said it is a necessary tool to help keep the Conference from fracturing on key votes, especially since the chamber is so closely divided and is expected to remain so in the 109th Congress.

“I support modernizing and changing rules and I support the ability to keep us together,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho). “A little bit of shaping and a little bit of herding at times has a way of keeping the frogs in the wheelbarrow.”

Republican leaders were particularly frustrated with several GOP Senators this year for refusing to support their budget plan, which was never passed and resulted in an embarrassing blow to the majority party.

Unlike House Republicans and Democrats in both chambers, Senate Republicans determine committee assignments based solely on seniority. Therefore, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) does not wield the same power over his colleagues to enforce party discipline as do the three other leaders. Frist said he supports the idea of giving the top Republican more power but added that he has decided to “stay out of” the discussions.

“I am only going to be Majority Leader for another two years, so I am looking ahead to see whether this affects me or not, and it doesn’t affect me directly,” said Frist, who has indicated that he plans to retire in 2006. “But I think it is very important to have the leadership have appropriate rules to manage.”

To assuage fears of Senators who oppose the proposal, Frist said “there is not going to be any sort of railroading” to ensure the measure is adopted when the GOP Conference addresses it after the elections.

But several moderate Republicans said they view vesting power over panel assignments in one person as an attempt to muffle their voices on key issues. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) argued the idea of rewarding loyal Senators runs counter to the theme of the Republican National Convention, which highlighted the party’s diversity. Chafee pointed to the particular emphasis placed on former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, all outspoken Republican moderates who delivered prime time speeches promoting President Bush’s re-election.

“Who were the headline speakers, and why were they the headline speakers?” Chafee asked rhetorically. “Because [their message] resonates with the American people.

“If these issues resonate with the American people, why stifle us from speaking out on them?”

Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) told Republicans last week that if any Senators want to make a rules change, they should have it ready for consideration during the “organizational session” after the elections, several Senators and aides said.

In the short term, Republican leaders want to make sure there are no fissures in the Conference as they attempt to complete a full plate of legislative work and try to maintain their grip of Congress and the White House.

“This could get contentious and could consume people’s time,” said a senior GOP aide familiar with the planning who asked not to be named. “It just didn’t have to be done right away.”

Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), a leading proponent of granting the Republican leader more power, said the delay would “give the leadership a chance to focus on what” proposal to support.

“I think there is a real sense of where we are but not a real sense of where we ought to go,” Talent said. Still, Talent said he believes that something has to be done. “A manager of a team has to have some ability to place a team’s assets in a different place.”

An advocate for maintaining the status quo, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said his goal after the elections would be to try to persuade his colleagues to reject the proposed changes.

“I just hope we can convince our colleagues it is not a good idea,” McCain said. “I don’t know what else we can do.”