Senate Leaders Play Hardball on Eve of 109th Congress

Frist Seeks More Money for GOP Committees

The GOP’s four-seat gain in the Senate in November’s election has emboldened Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) to limit the Democrats’ influence by reworking the appropriations for Senate committee in hopes of giving Republicans a two-thirds-to-one-third advantage in resources.

Frist’s willingness to use hardball tactics represents a change for the majority leader who took over at the start of the last Congress with a razor-thin 51-to-49 advantage and was criticized by some conservatives for failing to halt Democratic filibusters against 10 of President Bush’s judicial nominees. For the first time, Frist now has the leverage to push through a conservative agenda, with or without the liberals in his own caucus.

By taking a tough stand on committee resources, Frist has angered Democrats grown accustomed to an equal share of funding. Starting with the 107th Congress in 2001, Republicans altered the allocation of committee resources to reflect the Senate’s 50-50 split. When the GOP picked up a seat in the 2002 elections, Republicans received 51% of the resources to the Democrats’ 49%.

Under Frist’s plan, GOP committee staff would get two-thirds of the resources. Despite their gripes, Democrats operated exactly that way when they controlled the Senate with a 57-43 majority in 1993. Of the Senate’s 18 committees, Democrats controlled two-thirds of resources on 12 of them. On four others, they had at least 60% of resources. When Republicans took control of the Senate in the 1994 election, they adopted the same practice.

“Throughout the recent history of the Senate, it’s been majority two-thirds, minority one-third,” Frist’s spokesman, Bob Stevenson, told HUMAN EVENTS. “The majority needs to run the operation. They need to run the committee hearings. They need to operate the committees. Therefore, they need the larger staff.”

According to figures published by the Hill newspaper, Democrats would lose 80 staff positions under Frist’s plan. If it were altered to a 60%-40% split, about 45 staffers would lose their jobs.

Negotiating with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) over committee resources is only one of the priorities on Frist’s plate. He also faces the prospect of an even tougher fight over a Supreme Court vacancy than he has had in the past two years over appellate vacancies. In a November 12 speech to the Federalist Society, Frist said, “This filibuster is nothing less than a formula for tyranny by the minority.”

Frist has at least two options at his disposal. Writing for HUMAN EVENTS, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) has suggested changing the Senate’s rules regarding the filibuster at the start of the 109th Congress. (In Hatch’s proposal, the number of votes needed to force a final vote on a judicial nominee would gradually diminish to a simple majority.) Frist could also embrace an alternative dubbed the “nuclear option.” This would start by leaving Senate filibuster rules as they are currently written. But then, when Democrats attempt to filibuster a judicial nomination, Republicans would raise a constitutional point of order and the chair (in this case Vice President Cheney) would rule that filibustering judicial nominees is unconstitutional. A filibuster over this ruling would not be in order, and a simple majority vote would settle the issue.

Whichever strategy he chooses, Frist will have to face down the partisan Reid, who has promised to “screw things up” should Republicans implement any kind of rule change on confirmations. Stevenson said the two leaders haven’t discussed the filibuster.

Reid Wants Focused Message to Counter GOP

Unbowed by their minority status, Senate Democrats are laying the groundwork for a rigorous offensive against the Bush Administration in the 109th Congress, starting on January 4 with the launch of a war room in the Capitol to hone the party’s message.

The new Democrat leader, highly partisan Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, has centralized the party’s operations and tapped a select few liberal Democrats–notably Senators Dick Durbin (Ill.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Hillary Clinton (N.Y.)–as his confidants.

In addition, a revamped Democratic Policy Committee, led by Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), will hold purely partisan congressional hearings in January to drum up attention to the administration’s handling of the Iraq war. Democrats say they hope to model the effort after Harry Truman’s Senate oversight hearings in 1941.

As the top-elected Democrat in the Nation’s Capital, Reid is being counted on by liberals and Democrats nationwide to play hardball with his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), and with the White House. Since being elected to succeed defeated Sen. Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.) as minority leader, Reid has presented himself as a tough-as-nails party stalwart. On the issue of President Bush’s judicial nominees, for instance, he has warned the GOP not to alter Senate rules to end the Democrat-led filibusters that became a fixture under Reid’s watch as minority whip. He helped Democrats successfully block ten of Bush’s 229 nominees.

But Reid might have also learned a lesson about Daschle’s obstructionism, which played a role in his November defeat. In a December 5 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Reid signaled that he may well support conservative Justice Antonin Scalia should Bush elevate Scalia to chief justice upon William H. Rehnquist’s expected retirement. Reid’s comments drew a rebuke from liberal interest groups, just as his subsequent insult of Justice Clarence Thomas–whom he called an “embarrassment”–prompted scorn from conservatives.

The “Meet the Press” interview was Reid’s first test as the Democratic leader in the media spotlight. As whip, he was responsible for counting votes, leaving Daschle to sell the Democrat agenda. But in the war room Reid has established in his Capitol office, he has brought together a skilled team of communications professionals who are known for their aggressive approach. Veteran press secretary Jim Manley, who worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) for the past 11 years, will lead the Democratic Communications Center. Phil Singer, who handled rapid response for the Kerry-Edwards campaign and once worked for Schumer, will serve as its communications director. Reid’s press secretary, Tessa Hafen, will shift to the new office, which is expected to employ 15 staffers.

“It’s a more concerted effort to get out the Democratic message,” Singer told HUMAN EVENTS. “In the past, the leader’s office always acted as a spokesperson for the caucus. This is the first time that it’s been overtly made into that as an entity.”

The Democratic Policy Committee, meanwhile, will become another weapon for Reid. At a December 13 press conference, he and Dorgan promised that the committee would hold wide-ranging hearings that would explore alleged contracting abuses in Iraq, the administration’s use of pre-war intelligence, and, on the domestic front, an investigation into the cost of the prescription drug benefit. Dorgan said, “When you have one party rule of government, it is critical that you have aggressive congressional oversight.”