WASHINGTON -- Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, chairman of the
Senate Democratic Policy Committee, on CNN last Saturday night accused
Republican senators of blocking a vote on President Bush's proposed new
Department of Homeland Security. "They're the ones that filibustered it,"
charged Dorgan, noting that Republicans opposed cloture five times.
Is it possible that Republicans on "five occasions" prevented
the Senate "from having a vote" on their own president's highest legislative
priority? Not really. In the continuing decline of the Senate, nobody
actually filibusters anything anymore. Nor does the cloture device fulfill
its purpose of closing debate to force a vote. Rather, Republicans voted
against cloture because it would have prevented the Senate from considering
what Bush wanted.
These machinations are tied to this year's close Senate
elections, where Republicans are accusing incumbent Democrats of blocking
the homeland bill because the president's version undermines the power of
government worker unions. The Democratic leadership wants neither to offend
labor nor force such senators as Max Cleland in Georgia and Tim Johnson in
South Dakota to cast votes that would be used against them by election
opponents. The result is a lot of homeland politics and no bill passed.
When Bush in July suddenly proposed a new Cabinet-level
department, the union rights issue erupted on the House floor. Under House
rules, the majority rules. The president prevailed largely along party
lines, 222 to 208, and the bill passed July 26 with expedited procedures.
Once that bill arrived in the Senate, any sense of urgency vanished.
The version crafted by Chairman Joseph Lieberman's Governmental
Affairs Committee satisfied organized labor's demands. But Democratic Sen.
Zell Miller of Georgia joined 48 Republican senators (all but Lincoln Chafee
of Rhode Island) on an amendment to affirm presidential authority. Thus
began Kabuki Theater, playing on the Senate floor for six weeks.
The Senate has not seen a genuine filibuster for many years, and
this bill did not start one. Nevertheless, Democratic leaders filed a
cloture resolution, which, ironically, would restrict the Senate's
self-expression. Cloture, designed to end filibusters, once was rarely
requested and rarely invoked. Now used to limit amendments, it is often
requested and often invoked. Invoking cloture would have prevented a vote on
the Bush-backed amendment sponsored by Miller and Republican Sen. Phil Gramm
Cloture failed on five separate occasions, and Senate Majority
Leader Thomas Daschle would not permit a vote on the merits of Gramm-Miller.
This yielded the most intense rhetoric of the listless mid-term election
campaign. Daschle uncharacteristically exploded ("Outrageous! Outrageous!")
over Bush's criticism.
Daschle's dilemma is intense. Refusing to be maneuvered into an
anti-union posture, he turned down a Republican offer to settle the dispute
with the provision that the president's authority as of Sept. 11, 2001,
would not be diluted. On the other hand, he does not want to subject the Max
Clelands and Tim Johnsons to damaging votes.
The lone Democratic defector makes it clear why this is so
uncomfortable for his party. Zell Miller (who campaigns hard for his fellow
Georgian, Cleland) antagonized Democratic colleagues with this floor
statement: "Why do we hold so dear a personnel system that was created in
1883 and is as outdated as an ox-cart on an expressway? Because by keeping
the status quo, there are votes to be had and soft money to be pocketed.
That is the dirty little secret."
Daschle as majority leader is tough and ingenious. He showed his
toughness by rejecting out of hand a compromise devised by Democratic
moderates John Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska (with
Republican Chafee). He showed his ingenuity by offering a vote on
Gramm-Miller, which he would permit to pass by close to 100 to 0, which then
would be superseded by a Breaux-Nelson-Chafee version acceptable to the
unions. The bill itself probably would not pass, but the endangered
Democratic senators would be protected.
"You must think I just fell off the turnip truck," drawled
Gramm, retiring after 24 years in Congress, as he denied the unanimous
consent needed for Daschle's plan. In close races, Senate candidates must
live with satisfying the unions. The outcome Nov. 5 will determine whether
it was worth it.