A Republican Senate?

Robert Novak

3/5/2001 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Republicans who celebrate control of Senate, House and presidency for the first time in 48 years are guilty of either illusion or self-deception. Anyone who doubts the Senate is Republican in name only should consider the problems encountered by the bill to reform federal bankruptcy laws. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott thought the bankruptcy bill, passed by a 70-vote Senate margin last year before President Clinton's veto struck it down, could be one bill to quickly become law in 2001. He was wrong. After 3 1/2 weeks of Democratic obstruction, the Judiciary Committee finally cleared the measure last Wednesday. Democrats blocked Senate floor debate on it Thursday and Friday, postponing action until Monday, with no certainty of when it will pass. Lott's much criticized decision to evenly split committee membership and staff ratios surely did not eliminate Senate gridlock. But the tumult would have been far worse had he insisted on GOP committee majorities. The real problem is that Republicans lost five Senate seats last November despite record high campaign spending, creating a 50-50 Senate that is nominally Republican only because Vice President Dick Cheney breaks the tie. Democrats are poised to take control if and when 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond departs. Many Republicans are coming to believe they would be better off in the minority. Ideologically, the GOP is in the minority now. Four Republicans from New England states comfortably carried by Al Gore are cool to George W. Bush's tax cut and other programs. Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, chairman of the Education Committee, is a Republican who wins in the nation's most liberal state by not acting much like a Republican. He is more in tune with the committee's top Democrat -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy -- than with President Bush. Jeffords does not like much about the Bush education plan that he is supposed to guide through the Senate. In contrast, Democratic senators from Bush landslide states such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana are solidly against the president's program -- especially South Dakota's Thomas Daschle, the Senate minority leader. For all the pious mouthing about bipartisanship, Daschle is intensely partisan on his way to establishing himself as a great Senate leader. Sen. Robert Byrd, the Senate's senior Democrat, has found new life at age 83 as Bush's hairshirt. He calls himself a "conservative." But as one of the great spenders in Senate history from his base on the Appropriations Committee, he is an implacable foe of Bush's tax reductions. While the House is likely to give the president his tax cuts, the Senate is questionable. Bush may have to peel back some New England liberal Republicans to win the tax bill, and the outlook for his budget is even tougher. Meanwhile, the appropriators -- led by their Republican chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens -- eagerly await a supplemental appropriations bill to boost spending above Bush's levels. The Senate remains gridlocked. Last Wednesday's deadline expired for the normally routine passage of standing committee budgets. Why, Democrats ask themselves, go to this trouble today when they may be in control tomorrow? Strom Thurmond is frail and failing, though longtime associates say the old man's staying power should not be underestimated. Democratic senators have been privately telling reporters that Thurmond should resign rather than deprive South Carolina of a fully capable U.S. senator. Either way, the Democrats are ready for Thurmond's departure. So are many Republicans, who feel the president's and their own leverage in the Senate would be enhanced if the myth of GOP control were removed. Not only is it easier to counter-punch, but fund-raising would be enhanced with the most left-wing bogeymen ever installed as key committee chairmen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland at Banking and Max Baucus of Montana at Finance could unzip business purses. Even Trent Lott admitted to me he is of two minds. He loves being majority leader, and said that greeting a Republican president about to address a Republican House and Republican Senate Tuesday night "fulfilled my dream of 29 years in Congress." But Lott knows that the Senate is only nominally Republican and that claiming to control it is a burdensome illusion.