Robert Novak

Finally, an HIV testing program for pregnant women sponsored by Dr. Coburn, a physician, has been eliminated. That looks like vindictiveness toward Coburn, whose campaign against excessive spending has antagonized colleagues on both sides of the aisle. To call his broad-based "baby AIDS testing" program an earmark betrays animus.

But a proposal to restore money for popular HIV testing or any other amendment cannot be offered because of a parliamentary ploy by Reid. The arcane technique of "filling the tree" with superfluous amendments, first used a quarter of a century ago by a Republican majority leader (Howard Baker), prevents any changes being offered on the Senate floor and has contributed to degeneration of the Senate as a deliberative body. In his brief tenure as majority leader, Reid has filled the amendment tree twice -- first on the Iraq resolution and now on the omnibus money bill. Never before had this been done on an appropriations bill.

That left Republicans with these options: bow to Reid, or block the money bill with a filibuster as today's [Feb. 15] deadline for funding the government approached. But Republicans have never quite recovered from their political disaster in the 1995 shutdown of government and do not want a repetition. Thus, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip Trent Lott, while deploring Reid's tactics, voted for cloture on Tuesday -- the white flag of surrender.

Republican sources say the leadership did not want to hurt senators facing uphill re-election contests in 2008 by risking a government shutdown. That is an admission of weakness by the Republican minority as the new Congress begins. With only 49 unadulterated Democrats in their seats, Harry Reid showed he could stare down the GOP.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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