Senate forges ahead slowly

by Alice Gomstyn | 6/25/01 5:00am

The restructuring of the Senate entered a near-final phase last week, as both Democrats and Republicans agreed that the majority party will gain a one-seat advantage on all Senate committees and that the size of committees could be expanded to accommodate the change.

The organizational resolution is one of the few points of consensus in a chamber fraught with partisan angst.

Last month's defection of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords from the Republican party and the subsequent Senate shake-up -- granting Democrats a bare majority in the chamber and allowing for party members to assume all committee chairmanships -- stirred a veritable frenzy among beltway enthusiasts. Beaming Democrats declared victory while Republicans masked utter outrage with more complacent statements of disappointment and regret.

President George W. Bush reaffirmed a commitment to work with members of both parties, irrespective of majority and minority status, to push through critical pieces of legislation. Still, he joined fellow GOP members in expressing his discontent; after all, he could no longer claim to be the leader of the first unified Republican government in nearly half a century.

In the midst of all the celebration and consternation, pundits glued their eyes to the Senate floor, anxious to learn whether the upheaval in leadership would turn the already polarized chamber into a zone of outright legislative combat.

Now, two weeks following the Democrats' official take-over of the Senate, blood-thirsty observers may emerge somewhat satisfied.

Democratic attempts to forge ahead with a Patient's Bill of Rights -- the first major issue to be taken up by the party since its elevation to majority status -- have been met by formidable opposition from the GOP.

Originally scheduled for debate on Tuesday, Republicans blocked formal consideration of Democrat-backed bill, insisting more time was necessary to investigate the particulars of the legislation. The Senate finally moved to begin formal debate on Thursday morning

Critics say the delay was merely an instrument with which Republicans hoped to slow progress on the majority party's agenda -- a strategy that the Democrats themselves were accused of employing during their years as minority party members.

Republicans also have another trick up their sleeve: a bill of their own. Ironically, one of those leading the charge to dispense with the Democratic bill in favor of a Republican-backed replacement is none other than Jeffords himself.

The newly-minted independent senator joins Senator Bill Frist, R-TN, and John Breaux, D-LA, in sponsoring a version of the patients' rights bill that has received the support of the president and of most Republicans.

Meanwhile, education -- the only major issue on both parties' agenda -- has brighter prospects of avoiding deadlock. Both houses of Congress have now passed education reform bills -- based on a proposal introduced by the President prior to the Senate shake-up -- that call for the annual testing of public school students and increased funding for certain programs.

Still, the issue does show signs of partisan wear and tear. The Senate bill outspends its House counterpart by about $15 billion dollars.

The disparity largely results from the work of Senate Democrats, who, over Republican objections, secured more funding than was originally proposed in Bush's education plan. How well the Senate and the House (which remains under Republican control) will work out their differences remains to be seen.

Senate Republicans and Democrats are butting heads on issues beyond just those regarding national legislation. Republicans are pushing for a Senate policy mandating that all confirmations of Bush's Supreme Court nominees be brought to a floor vote.

Republican senators worry that without such a measure, Bush's conservative-leaning nominees -- once all but guaranteed confirmation by the former Republican majority -- could be blocked in the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee. The matter is set to be decided through a full Senate vote in the coming weeks.