WASHINGTON -- At 8:15 last Wednesday night, the party leaders -- Republican Bill Frist and Democrat Tom Daschle -- took the floor of the Senate to end nine of the strangest days in that chamber's storied history. For the first time ever, the effect of an election changing control of a house of Congress had been delayed. Now, belatedly, election returns restoring the Senate's Republican majority were recognized.
The voice votes on ordinarily routine reorganization resolutions came without dissent and without debate. It followed protracted backstage negotiations between Frist and Daschle, and old Senate hands never had seen anything like it. Committee control, chairmanships and even committee assignments for new senators were held hostage for Democratic demands.
Although Democrats achieved little of their ambitious wish list, strategy transcended specific demands. They take seriously complaints by Barbra Streisand and James Carville that they lost the 2002 elections because they were too soft on George W. Bush and the Republicans. The audacious delay of last November's election begins a sustained effort to slow walk the Republican-controlled 108th Congress into the 2004 presidential elections.
It started after Christmas, before the Jan. 7 convening of the new Congress. Daschle's staffers dispatched marching orders through Democratic ranks. A Jan. 2 internal Democratic memo pointed out that while Frist automatically would replace Daschle as majority leader, "Democrats continue to serve as chairs of all committees and subcommittees until the Senate reorganizes." Furthermore, it noted that "Senate Democrats have leverage when the organizing resolution hits the floor" because it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.
With negotiations deadlocked, Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings chaired Commerce Committee hearings on telecommunications. Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman scheduled Governmental Affairs confirmation hearings on Tom Ridge as secretary of Homeland Security (plans scuttled when Republican committee members refused to show up and Ridge was ordered by the White House not to testify).
Meanwhile, Democratic demands escalated beyond requests for funding and office space. Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, moved to end the committee's longtime non-partisanship and create a separate Democratic staff that could be used in the 2004 campaign.
Most remarkable was the demand by Judiciary Committee Democrats for broad control over President Bush's nominations for federal appellate judges. They wanted these restrictions on the confirmation process: "That hearings not be scheduled until the ABA (American Bar Association) has submitted its peer review and the committee has had three weeks to review the nomination; that each hearing contain only one controversial nominee . . . and only one circuit court nominee; that hearings not be held more frequently than every three or four weeks."
More than any other bargaining point, the judicial confirmation proposal betrayed Democratic slow-walking. With the Republican leadership seeing a maximum seven-month window to pass its bills and confirm its judges, the performance of the all-Republican government was threatened by the nature and substance of Democratic demands.
Last Wednesday, as negotiations seemed endless, Republican Sen. Robert Bennett took the floor to compare this to what happened 18 months ago, just minutes after Sen. James Jeffords's defection shifted the Senate in its last change of control. He said he bumped into Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin in the Senate subway and told him: "Dick, since you are now chairman of (the Legislative Branch Appropriations) subcommittee, you decide whether or not we hold the hearing (scheduled that afternoon). He looked a little nonplussed but said to me: Bob, you don't want to hold the hearing since you have set it up? I said: No, Dick, you hold the hearings because you are now the chairman."
Bennett's conclusion of what the Democrats intended: "This is a deliberate, predetermined, pre-congressional attempt to prevent the Republicans from being successful." Frist was not making Senate speeches but working behind the scenes to prevent a costly Republican disaster.
Frist succeeded in killing the judicial nomination slowdown while compromising on other issues. Most important, he was able to get the cumbersome Senate machinery started. That immediately set off a slow-moving Democratic attempt to load up the bill passing appropriations carried over from last year, forcing the majority leader late Friday to call the Senate back Tuesday during a scheduled recess week. It has been a harrowing launch, ominous for the future, of Bill Frist as majority leader.