Members Join Primary Calendar Debate

Posted September 12, 2007 at 6:36pm

First, there’s Iowa. Then, New Hampshire.

Oh, wait, that’s wrong. Now it goes Iowa, Nevada and then New Hampshire (although New Hampshire officials have said they’ll move up).

Oops — now that’s wrong, too. The current primary schedule calls for Iowa to be followed by Michigan. Then Nevada and New Hampshire.

Michigan?

Months before the first vote is to be cast, the presidential primary calendar already has become crowded, confusing and controversial. Aside from the ongoing who-goes-second-and-third contest, at least 18 states are expected to pick delegates on Feb. 5, potentially deciding the primary contest weeks earlier than usual.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Congress has begun to get involved. In the past few months, a slew of Members have brought forth legislation in an attempt to simplify the primary schedule while making the process equally fair across the country.

“People are now talking about the order of the states rather than the quality of ideas,” said David Goldenberg, a spokesman for Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who introduced one of the measures. “And you know, presidential elections should not be about which states go first.”

Two sets of companion bills have been introduced this session designed to replace the current system — although the measures differ in the details.

Legislation put forth by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) would divide the country into four geographic regions and set four primary dates.

That bill has made the most progress so far. It is scheduled to be discussed in a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing next week, and it is supported by Rules Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is a co-sponsor. (Hastings introduced the companion legislation on the House side and plans to push for a hearing, Goldenberg said.)

But that measure isn’t the only option. Another set of bills — sponsored by Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) in the House and Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) in the Senate — would create six presidential primary dates, each including one state from six different regions.

Those measures have yet to be brought up before the Senate Rules and House Administration committees, to which they have been referred. But according to Hilarie Chambers, a spokeswoman for Rep. Levin, what is important is that people are talking.

“I think the one thing that’s becoming very clear is that the system is broken,” she said.

That broken system has forced states to move their primary dates up next year in an attempt to stay relevant in the nominating contests, Congressional aides said.

For example: In May, the Florida Legislature moved its primary up to Jan. 29. Michigan then moved its primary ahead of Florida, to Jan. 15, just one day after the Iowa caucuses.

All that movement has gotten the attention of the Democratic National Committee. Angry that states have chosen to uproot the primary process, the party voted to strip Florida of its 210 delegates unless a later primary is set.

It is in part because of that sort of turmoil that Congress begun to step in, Goldenberg said.

“There’s got to be real hearings, whether it be this particular proposal or just the presidential primary system in general,” Goldenberg said. “If the parties aren’t going to do it, it’s the role of Congress to get it done.”

A DNC aide said the party is still reviewing the two measures.

But the aide added: “We feel parties should have right to determine how delegates to the national conventions are selected.”

Nelson, who has publicly criticized the DNC’s move, said a solution must be found to avoid these sorts of problems in the future.

“Out of this year’s mess can and must come sound public policy,” Hastings said. “Primary elections were never intended to pit one state against another.”

The Klobuchar-Alexander-Lieberman-sponsored Regional Presidential Primary and Caucus Act would create four geographic regions and four regional primary dates.

Beginning in 2012, states in the first region would hold their presidential primaries on the first Tuesday in March with the other regions following the first Tuesdays of April, May and June. The order would rotate every four years, and the region to go first would be picked through a lottery.

“This schedule gives power and influence back to the voters in every state,” Klobuchar said.

Iowa and New Hampshire would not participate in the regional rotation, thus keeping their historical status as the first caucus and primary in the nation, a Klobuchar aide said.

“They would return to their proper role as ‘off-Broadway’ opportunities for lesser-known candidates to become well-enough known to compete on the four-month-long big stage,” Alexander said.

The role of Iowa and New Hampshire is one of the biggest differences between that bill and the Interregional Presidential Primary and Caucus Act, sponsored by Levin and Nelson.

Under that bill, six primary dates would be established — one in March, two in April, two in May and one in June. Each date would include at least one state from six different geographic regions, and Iowa and New Hampshire would be included just as any other state.

The goal of the Levin-Nelson legislation is to include a presence from every region of the country on each election day, Chambers said.

“This would give voters in larger states a strong voice in selecting the nominees over four months, while also giving citizens in the smaller states a fair say, too,” Nelson said.

The order of the states within each region would rotate every four years, and, if passed this session, the new system would go into effect for the 2012 presidential contest.

“We think it would preserve grass-roots campaigning,” Chambers said.

Although the two sets of measures are different, officials for both said the immediate goal should be to generate discussion on a topic that has been avoided for too long.

“There’s clearly no shortage of ideas,” Goldenberg said.