Advertisement

Senate agrees to historic power-sharing agreement

By
P. MITCHELL PROTHERO and MARK BENJAMIN

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 -- The Senate Friday passed a new resolution to share power among the two parties, giving each equal representation on Senate committees, splitting staffing resources and tinkering with protocol for the Senate floor to give both sides more of a say.

The historic power-sharing agreement reflects the chamber's 50-50 split among Democrats and Republicans resulting from the November elections.

Advertisement

"If the resolution I have just introduced is not miraculous, it is -- at the very least -- historic," Democratic leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota said Friday about the deal.

Acting as Majority Leader of the Senate until Republicans take control of the White House Jan. 20, Daschle said the resolution, "should enable us to conduct the nation's first 50-50 Senate in a productive and bipartisan manner."

With numerous members on both sides citing the recent elections that left the Senate with 50 votes for each party, the mood on the floor and in the aisles stressed the need for bipartisanship as the deal will now make it much harder for the majority party to impose its will on a Senate that already is structured to protect the power of each individual senator.

Advertisement

The agreement was passed by unanimous consent with no senators offering objections.

The temporary ascension of Daschle to the top position put Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi in an uncomfortable position: He needed a deal to prevent the Democrats from running completely roughshod over his caucus for the next few weeks and from making life particularly difficult for the GOP even after they returned to power.

"This is a classic case of extending the hand of friendship," Lott said.

Political observers said Friday the new agreement was born out of political necessity and generally praised Republicans and Democrats for hammering out a compromise. Bipartisan sentiment is particularly salient because death or retirement by a single senator could immediately swing the scales of power, and the elections in 2002 are just not that far away.

"In general, I think it is a smart thing on Lott's part," American Enterprise Institute Congressional Scholar Norman Ornstein said. "Democrats might take the majority back soon. You want to set a good precedent."

But while the new agreement is shrouded in now-quotidian expressions of bipartisanship, observers note that it could set the stage for some very public and nasty fights on the floor of the Senate. Both parties have enhanced power to address their priorities on the Senate floor, and it provides fewer tools to muzzle the opposition.

Advertisement

The agreement stipulates that both leaders, for example, can move to discharge a bill from a Senate committee to get it onto the Senate floor.

"The true battle will be on the Senate floor in terms of scheduling," Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Marshall Wittmann said. "It is a bit ambiguous how it will actually work. A lot of this is going to have to be worked out as the Senate moves legislation."

The agreement stipulates that the Senate Majority Leader -- which will be Lott after Jan. 20 -- maintains the powerful "first right of recognition." That means he can essentially assume control of the Senate floor as he sees fit.

But then the resolution eliminates some key tools Lott used in the 106th Congress to keep Democrats in a box. For example, Lott would often override Democrats' wish to debate an issue by swiftly filing for "cloture" to end debate on the Senate floor before Democrats could arrange their opposition to the move.

But the resolution gives the Democrats 12 hours to do so before any cloture vote. "This provision reflects concerns on our side of the aisle," Daschle said. "We wanted to ensure that there would be an opportunity for debate before cloture was filed."

Advertisement

Lott has used other methods to control Democrats as well, such as filling all available opportunities to amend a bill in the "amendment tree" with superfluous amendments of his choosing that then eliminate Democrats' plans. Lott said he would no longer use such tactics out of bipartisan cooperation.

"I am not planning to fill up the amendment tree," Lott said.

The new resolution to share power leaves any outstanding issues to be addressed as they arise, including procedures for naming members of the Senate conference committee that will meet to reconcile bills with the House. But Lott and Daschle said that little incentive exists for one party to gum up the process, because with a nearly equal spit, it will be clear which party is obstructing the legislative process.

"We will have to work together, and if this doesn't happen, it will be obvious which party is obstructing the action," Lott said.

But several Republicans, who were forced to concede some power to their peers, were less optimistic about the willingness of their colleagues to work at bipartisanship.

"Elections have consequences," noted Sen. Larry Craig, R-Id. "In this case, one changed the makeup of the Senate. We have tried to work with this other side and we have seen what could be called obstructionism on their part. But that was last year in a different Congress."

Advertisement

"I don't know if we will be able to get the work of the American people done," worried Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. "Under this agreement, it will be hard for us to get work done. Very tough. But I am hopeful and will support this agreement."

Lott faced the most heavy lifting to convince 50 politicians in his party to voluntarily give up some power for the greater good, a request that Senate-sized egos are completely unfamiliar with.

"He had a much harder time than I did," Daschle said. "He was dealing with members who had been in the majority. Forcing them to come to a realization like this one, that is very difficult."

And clearly, Republicans note that their power is not gone. "The Senate is not tied 50-50," Lott said. "The Senate is at 51-50. It is a rare situation, but they did account for it in the Constitution."

Latest Headlines