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Gumming up the president's agenda in Congress?

Back in February of 1997, Bill Clinton was having trouble sleeping. Already tarred by the most scandals in modern history, the president was worried about mounting GOP calls for yet another independent counsel, this one to investigate alleged fundraising irregularities. With evidence piling up that John Huang, Charlie Trie, and others had made illegal donations to the Clinton campaign, even Democrats were beginning to call for an outside investigation. Sen. Pat Moynihan, then the senior senator from New York, was the first Democrat to lower the boom, followed by Sen. Russ Feingold and former Sen. Bill Bradley.

The president had to stop the bleeding, and he knew just whom to call.

According to contemporary news reports, Tom Daschle's phone rang at 1 a.m. on a Monday. An angry Bill Clinton reminded the South Dakota senator how much money the president was raising for Democratic senators-and this was the thanks he got? The Democratic calls for an independent counsel had to stop, he told Mr. Daschle.

Fast forward to May of 2001. When Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords switched parties, giving Democrats a one-vote majority in the Senate, they needed a leader who could stop the flood of legislation coming from a Republican president and House of Representatives. Like Mr. Clinton, they knew just whom to call.

As senators prepared for a month-long recess on Aug. 2, Sen. Daschle, the majority leader, finally allowed his party to pass a flurry of bills and confirm a dozen presidential appointments. The White House got its wish for fast-track trade authority, and President Bush signed a law aimed at curbing corporate accounting fraud.

But those measures, passed just before the lights went out in Washington, were clearly the exception rather than the rule. GOP House leaders, who started their own recess a week earlier, complain bitterly that Sen. Daschle and his allies in the upper chamber have spent the entire year burying legislation sent over from the other side of the Hill. House Majority Leader Dick Armey singled out 50 bills passed by his colleagues that Sen. Daschle refused even to bring to a vote on the Senate floor. "The American people want action. They don't want political posturing," Mr. Armey said, urging the Senate to "Free the Daschle 50" from legislative limbo. "The Democrat-led Senate has a responsibility to vote on legislation. In fact, it's their job."

The question now, especially for the 34 members facing reelection, is: After seven months as a do-nothing Senate, what grade will their last-minute efforts earn them from voters?

Republicans learned the hard way that stonewalling in Washington can get you stoned back home. Back in 1995, when they let the federal government shut down rather than pass a controversial Clinton budget, the backlash from voters was fierce. By 1998, the GOP nearly lost the House majority it had secured just four years earlier, and Newt Gingrich was toppled from his perch as Speaker.

This year, clinging to a bare 11-vote margin, House leaders were determined to prove they were earning their paychecks. The tightly organized Republican caucus has moved quickly through the president's agenda, giving Mr. Bush nearly everything he asked for on issues ranging from human cloning to welfare reform to immigration reform. That kind of quick action hasn't gone unnoticed by the White House: "We have been pleased with how many of our initiatives have moved through the House of Representatives, and been frustrated by the fact they haven't moved through the Senate," President Bush said.

Admittedly, some of the work piling up at the Senate's door is the result of political posturing by the GOP. In attempting to make tax cuts permanent, for instance, the House leadership unbundled last year's cuts (income tax, estate tax, marriage penalty, etc.) and passed each as a separate bill. That forced Senate Democrats to vote repeatedly against extending the cuts, enabling GOP challengers to charge, "My opponent voted against tax cuts x number of times."

Nor are Democrats the only ones who can stall votes in the Senate. On July 30, Republican staffers browsing the Judiciary Committee website got quite a jolt: Priscilla Owen, President Bush's nominee to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, would get a committee vote the next day-after nearly 14 months of waiting. GOP strategists charged that Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) rushed the extra session-originally scheduled for early September-onto the calendar because he knew he had the votes to defeat the pro-life, pro-business judge.

Suddenly, it was the Republicans clamoring for more time. The Justice Department demanded that Ms. Owen be allowed to respond to the 75 follow-up questions she had received from Democrats after her committee hearing just a week earlier. "After 439 days without a hearing, what is the drive for scheduling a sudden vote?" wondered Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh. Judiciary Committee Republicans wondered the same thing. They immediately announced they would employ a parliamentary device allowing them to put off the vote for a week. With the impending recess, that would move things back to early September, as originally planned.

Mr. Leahy isn't the only one in the Senate holding up President Bush's nominees. For months, Republican John McCain of Arizona has single-handedly blocked the chamber from voting on nominations by putting a "hold" on every Bush appointee. He vowed to halt the entire process until the president agreed to appoint a liberal Democrat to the Federal Election Commission, which has oversight of campaign-finance restrictions, Mr. McCain's signature issue. Mr. Bush relented on July 24, promising a recess appointment of Ellen Weintraub if the full Senate had not approved her by the time it adjourns in October. A mollified Mr. McCain ended his blockade, allowing confirmation of 15 nominees the next day.

Still, for all the caveats and the shared blame, it is clearly Mr. Daschle and his allies in the Senate leadership who have done the most to create the logjam in Washington. Here's a look at some of their unfinished business:

Judicial Appointments

Republicans may want to delay what looks like a defeat for Priscilla Owen, but they wish the Judiciary Committee would at least give a hearing to the president's other nominees. By this point in President Clinton's first term, 128 of his judicial choices had already been confirmed, compared to just 59 for President Bush. Indeed, of the first 11 names sent to the Senate in May 2001, fewer than half have received a committee hearing, much less a floor vote.

Liberals would love to block Bush judges permanently, if they possibly could. Barry Lynn, the left-wing anti-religion activist, told one rally that the president should not be allowed to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. If one of the justices were to retire, Democrats should simply tell Mr. Bush that "eight is enough," Mr. Lynn said.

Senate Democrats can't actually say such things, of course, but they don't really need to. The Daschle-Leahy team has bottled up Bush nominees in the Judiciary Committee, fearing they would win confirmation before the full Senate. But even center-left organizations like the Brookings Institution have begun to criticize that strategy.

"The Bush administration is doing its best to stay on pace, but the Senate is clearly slowing down. It's time to end the drought," said Brookings scholar Paul Light, who noted that Mr. Bush has been quicker than Mr. Clinton to select his nominees, yet the Senate has been confirming them at a record slow pace.

Happily for Mr. Daschle, except at the Supreme Court level, judicial appointments aren't usually a big deal with voters, so the controversy will likely be confined to Republican activists and a few think tanks-unless the president makes a public issue of it (see sidebar below).

Homeland Security

At the president's request, the House managed to pass the biggest government reorganization since the 1940s before its members left town for the summer. Their bill would create a new, cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security with 170,000 workers and a budget of $38 billion. The Senate, however, not only failed to act before it recessed, but also warned that it won't have its version of the bill completed by Sept. 11-a deadline originally proposed by Democrat Richard Gephardt.

Though Mr. Daschle stresses the need for further study of the massive reorganization, the main sticking point in the Senate appears to be political: President Bush insists that employees of the security-sensitive department should be exempted from union compacts that govern such issues as hiring, firing, and overtime. Democrats are afraid the House version of the bill, which mirrors the president's position, would weaken the labor movement, a key constituency.

The issue is fraught with peril for the Democrats, however. Since Sept. 11, Americans have shown they are willing to trade almost anything for a greater sense of security, so the fate of the labor movement is probably less important to the average voter than it is to the average Democratic senator.

By drawing out the debate over Homeland Security beyond next Sept. 11, the Democrats also play to the Republicans' strength in the closing days of the congressional elections. President Bush would like nothing better than to have public attention focused on the war on terrorism, where polls show that voters trust him by enormous margins. If the Senate is still absorbed with creating a new department to fight terrorism, Democrats will find it hard to focus voters' attention on corporate scandals and other issues that might hurt the GOP.

Budget

On Oct. 1, just when lawmakers want to focus on their reelection campaigns, they instead have to make sure the federal government has the money to keep its lights on. With the current fiscal year set to end Sept. 30, Congress has to come up with 13 separate appropriations bills for fiscal year 2003. The House has thus far delivered three of its bills, but the Senate has yet to get started.

Overall, the Senate wants to authorize $770 billion in discretionary spending, while the president and the House are drawing the line at $759 billion. But the devil is really in the details. The Senate, for instance, wants to keep Amtrak afloat with a $1.2 billion cash infusion, but the president is willing to commit only $521 million. The Energy Department bill would include an extra $475 million for water projects, while Interior would get hundreds of millions of extra dollars for fighting fires. Senate Democrats also plan to slip funding for international family planning into the State Department appropriation, likely forcing a showdown with the White House.

Much more than judicial appointments, unresolved budget issues create images of gridlock in the minds of voters. By waiting until the last minute to pass its appropriations bills, the Senate may try to play chicken with the White House, larding bills with excess spending, then daring the president to issue vetoes on the eve of an important election.

Social Issues

The House passed its bill extending welfare reform back in May, but the Senate has yet to act. It took nearly a year for the Senate to follow the House's lead on human cloning, and that debate went nowhere. Just two weeks ago, the House passed another version of a law to ban partial-birth abortion, but the Senate doesn't even have anything in the works.

On these and other social issues, the Senate is unlikely to move a single piece of legislation under its current leadership. With voters focused on terrorism and corporate corruption, there is simply no pressure on Mr. Daschle to move-or even debate-issues important to religious conservatives.

Republicans hope voter pressure will lead to a stepped-up legislative pace once the Senate reconvenes after Labor Day. To avoid the dreaded "do-nothing" charge, Mr. Daschle may allow a few more laws to squeeze through the pipeline. But no amount of pressure is going to loosen a logjam purposely created by a partisan Democrat with presidential ambitions of his own. That's why Republicans are working feverishly to pick up just one seat in the Senate, banishing Mr. Daschle to the minority. This time, it's the voters' call.

-with reporting by Tim Graham

Bob Jones

Bob Jones