WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- A dispute over the composition of Senate committees in the new Congress has boiled over into a full-blown battle, with the Senate's Republican leadership accusing Democrats of attempting a coup.
Democrats are refusing to agree to a GOP proposal on the composition and funding of committees unless they get higher than typical representation.
Normally, the majority party receives an average of two-thirds of the committee budget, while the minority receives the remainder. Because the Senate is in GOP hands, the Republicans had wanted the typical ratios for committees, but because the GOP advantage is only by a single vote, Democrats want a better deal.
The Democrats' argument is based on the agreement in the last Congress -- when the Senate was initially split 50-50 -- that allowed the Republicans to keep even committee ratios after power shifted to the Democrats when Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., left the GOP. The only leverage available is the threat to filibuster any organization agreement the Republicans offer.
Until a new agreement is passed, the committees remain organized in the same manner as the last Congress, which leaves the Democrats in control of the committees and new senators without committee assignments.
The GOP response to these demands Tuesday was fury and accusations.
"It's tantamount to an attempted coup right here on the floor of the Senate," fumed Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., to reporters.
New Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the refusal to approve the organization measure by Democrats was disenfranchising the voters in last November's elections, which gave control of the Senate to the GOP.
"The citizens of 11 states are being denied, in effect, their full rights as citizens," he said of the 11 new senators who have not received committee assignments. "This delay effectively voided the results of the elections last fall."
Assistant Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his party only wanted what it had given the GOP in the same situation in the last Congress -- committee ratios that reflect the closely divided Senate's composition.
"We are only asking for what we offered the Republicans the last time the Senate was 51 to 49," Reid said on the Senate floor.
But because that agreement was part of an unusual situation -- namely an evenly split Senate that was organized in that manner -- a nonpartisan Senate expert described that claim as true only to a point.
"It's politically true," he said. "But you can't say it's exactly true. That past deal was negotiated when the Senate was even and reflected the fact it could change.
"Here the GOP is clearly the majority party and the Democrats are trying to get a better deal than any other minority party has ever received."
Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Bob Bennett, R-Utah, released an internal e-mail from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office they claimed proved the Democrats had planned to obstruct the start of the new Congress.
But an examination of the document by United Press International found little rhetoric and only an observation that the dispute -- which was widely known to be imminent well before Tuesday -- was likely to stall early legislative work.
After noting that negotiations had gone slowly because new Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was still hiring leadership staff, the memo notes that the Democrats have significant leverage on the issue when it reaches the Senate floor because they could force the GOP to find 60 votes -- nine more than they have -- to end debate and pass the bill.
The most pressing effect from the dispute for both parties has been on the 11 remaining appropriations bills left over from last year that need passage to keep the federal government operating. Until an agreement on organization is reached on committees, Democrats continue to chair them and the GOP is not willing to have major spending bills decided by Democratic majorities.
The dispute has already begun threatening the first recess of the 108th Congress, which is scheduled for next week, because the spending bills have not been approved, although a series of continuing resolutions have, and will, continue to keep the government operating.
Daschle has already said he expects the Senate to be in session next week -- when it was due off for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday -- but Frist, who has final say, has yet to say what will happen.