Grassley Moves Irk Leaders

Posted February 22, 2008 at 6:33pm

Senate GOP leaders and many conservatives are chafing at Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) deals with Democrats during the past year, saying he has provided the majority with cover to call measures “bipartisan” while setting up potentially difficult votes for his fellow Republicans.

Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said it is “admirable” that Grassley is trying to forge bipartisan compromise but that Grassley has entered into agreements with Democrats that go too far afield from GOP philosophy.

“As much as you can, you want to write these bills so that they encompass enough of our principles,” Thune said. “On a couple of these bills, that wasn’t the case.”

“I think sometimes you have to learn from that,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said. “If you’re consistently not in step with the [Republican] Conference, maybe you need to evaluate some of your decision-making.”

Sessions complained that Grassley occasionally signs on to bills that “undermine the fundamental agenda we have” as Republicans.

Grassley dismissed suggestions that he is not a party loyalist, going as far as to research his voting record and compare it to other Republicans on the Finance panel. He said his research shows him “statistically” in line with his fellow Republicans.

But several GOP Senators said Grassley should engage Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) more extensively in negotiations on bipartisan measures he crafts with Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

“If you work out a deal and then present it to other people, ordinarily, you’re less likely to have buy-in than if you work with other people first and then try to work with the Democrats,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who also sits on the Finance Committee and has found himself opposing Grassley-backed legislation.

Thune added that there is “not enough negotiation with our guys on the front end before the deal is cut” with Baucus.

“It’s always advisable to try to engage the leadership to try to work out a deal,” Thune said. “As a conference — strategywise — we’re going to have to think through how he and our leadership can have a better way to reach agreement.”

Over the past year, Grassley has run afoul of his leadership on at least three major pieces of legislation: a children’s health insurance bill, an energy tax package and the economic stimulus deal.

Grassley bristled at the charges that he does not confer sufficiently with his GOP colleagues. He said he always endeavors to consult Republicans on the Finance Committee and in the larger Conference on what he’s working on with Baucus. On the children’s health bill, for example, Grassley said he met with his leadership four times and discussed his efforts four times with the rest of the Republicans on the Finance panel. On the economic stimulus, he said he met with GOP leaders twice.

“We had discussion in the [Conferencewide] policy meeting where I spoke on what I was planning on doing on the stimulus package. There wasn’t much discussion,” Grassley said in a recent interview.

When asked if people stood up to tell him not to pursue specific portions of the package with Baucus, Grassley said, “I don’t want to interpret silence, but there was plenty of silence.”

He added, “It’s kind of a case of looking for direction from your meetings, but not getting direction, but people kind of in a quiet way saying, ‘Go ahead and do the best you can do.’ You never really get those words, but that’s the implication you have to go on.”

For example, Grassley said his discussion with McConnell on stimulus was limited primarily to a promise that Grassley would first vote with Republicans to close debate on an unamended House-passed bill. According to Grassley, McConnell never asked him to refrain from brokering a separate deal with Baucus, and the implication Grassley took away from the meeting was that he was free to negotiate.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) structured the debate so Grassley never had to make good on his promise to McConnell, with the key vote being on the Baucus-Grassley bill instead.

McConnell and Kyl whipped Republicans against the Finance version of the bill because they argued that any tinkering with the House-passed measure would destroy the fragile bipartisan compromise that chamber reached with the White House.

Grassley said the primary problem with the economic stimulus bill was that “half of our people to begin with don’t even think we should have a stimulus package.” Kyl and other prominent Republican Senators questioned the wisdom of Congress’ focus on tax rebate checks rather than on more permanent tax-based measures.

Senate GOP leaders also rallied rank and file against a Grassley-backed energy tax package largely because renewable energy tax credits in the bill were paid for with the repeal of tax cuts for oil and natural gas companies.

On both the Baucus-Grassley stimulus package and the energy measure, Democrats fell one vote short of the 60 needed to beat back a filibuster. In the end, the Senate modestly modified the House stimulus measure with a provision allowing low-income seniors and disabled veterans to receive tax rebate checks. The energy bill ended up passing without a tax incentive package, but Reid has hinted the tax portion may come back to the floor in the next few weeks.

Baucus and Grassley’s efforts on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program were more successful, considering that 18 Republicans voted with 50 Democrats to pass the SCHIP bill last summer. The tally was enough to override President Bush’s threatened — and ultimately, real — veto, despite McConnell’s campaign against the measure.

In attempting to find enough Republican votes for a veto override in the House — an effort that fell short last fall — Grassley again infuriated Senate GOP leaders. When Reid attempted to delay a second vote on SCHIP to accommodate Grassley’s negotiations with the House, then-Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) bridled.

“Why should we accommodate that when it’s not a real negotiation,” Lott told reporters in October. “They’re still not talking to [Senator] McConnell.”

Grassley brushed off critics who say he is not a party loyalist. He said he compiled research comparing his voting record over the past year to McConnell and the nine other Finance Republicans.

“There are only two or three percentage points difference between the way I voted with McConnell and the way the other members have voted with McConnell,” Grassley said.

On stimulus in particular, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said Grassley has run up against a long-standing tension between the chairmen and ranking members of the Finance panel and their respective leaders.

“Sometimes they’re on different pages for different reasons,” Smith said. “It goes with the territory.”

Even though Smith voted with Grassley on the stimulus bill in committee and on the floor, he said any future efforts to pass longer-term economic growth packages should be more closely vetted with Bush.

“My advice would be to start from the beginning on the same page with the White House as to what’s possible to get done,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Baucus, who has come under similar criticism from members of his party, said Grassley’s problem is with a White House that does not value bipartisanship and exerts tremendous pressure on Senate GOP leaders to toe their line.

“If the Senate were left to its own devices, … we’d get a lot done around here,” Baucus said. “But the problem is the White House is just vetoing or threatening to veto so much and the Republican leadership just move” to close ranks.

Even though they criticized him, most GOP Senators also praised Grassley for trying to walk the line between GOP loyalist and bipartisan compromiser.

Kyl said he and Grassley “might disagree about the approach, but his motivations are not in question.”

“Sen. Grassley is a strong, fiercely independent person … but he is also willing to work on Republican consensus normally. So, I think there’s some tension there, and I would like to see us be more in step together,” Sessions said.

He added, “I can understand the frustrations and pressures that Sen. Grassley faces in wanting to try to move something.”