WASHINGTON -- The long-pending bankruptcy reform bill has passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins. Nevertheless, its final version will not reach President Bush's desk before May -- at the very earliest. That is a symptom of structural gridlock on Capitol Hill that belies protestations of bipartisanship.
The problem stems from the Senate's 50-50 deadlock created by the loss of five Republican seats last November. As part of "power sharing" between the two parties, Senate Democrats demand an even split of members on conference committees to resolve House and Senate differences -- beginning with the bankruptcy bill. Republican Sen. Trent Lott, majority leader only because Vice President Dick Cheney breaks the tie as Senate president, insists on a GOP edge in all conferences.
But Democratic senators threaten the filibuster to prevent Lott's kind of conferences. The probable result: gridlock, big time. For the first time in the Republic's history, conference committees may not convene this year except for the budget (including the tax cut), where different rules prevail. If so, President Bush can forget about much of his legislative program.
Such an outcome seemed unlikely after the election, when Lott and Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle met to confront the rare condition of an evenly divided Senate. To the horror of many Republican senators, Lott accepted Daschle's proposed power sharing to the extent of evenly splitting standing committee members and staffers. Lott said he wanted to lower the din of combat on the Hill sufficiently to permit the new president to be heard.
But Lott drew the line against parity on conference committees, the last act in the legislative process. Daschle did not seem adamant, but many of his Democratic colleagues were. Dealing with conference committees was put off until three months later, when the bankruptcy bill became the first major legislation passed in this slow-starting session.
Would Lott agree to a 50-50 bankruptcy conference committee? "Absolutely not," he told me this week. "There is no way I'm going to do that." Lott's insistence on a Republican majority figures to be challenged by Democrats on four separate necessary parliamentary motions, each of which faces a threatened filibuster that can be ended only by a three-fifths cloture vote.
The conference committee was born centuries ago in England to resolve differences between the Lords and the Commons and was present at the creation of Congress in 1789. The planned alternative has been used occasionally in bygone years: to "ping-pong" -- bouncing a bill back and forth between Senate and House as changes are made, a maximum of two times. This is a clumsy, time-consuming process that could force two cloture votes.
Daschle rejects the imminence of gridlock. "Trent and I have had a three-minute conversation about this at most," he told me. "I would be amazed if we can't work things out. I am open to negotiations." If Lott accepts a 50-50 split on the bankruptcy bill's conference committee, Daschle added, he would announce on the Senate floor that this would set no precedent.
On what bills would a conference with a Republican majority not face a filibuster threat? Daschle did not say, but it could be the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform with Sen. John McCain as a Republican conferee siding with Democrats and erasing the nominal GOP majority. Here, however, Lott's selected Republican conferees might well exclude McCain, in which case the feisty Arizonan himself might lead the filibuster.
Power sharing has failed. Lott's concessions were followed by a frontal Democratic assault on the nominations of John Ashcroft as attorney general and Gale Norton as secretary of the interior. Lott received no Democratic leadership help in breaking a stall on bankruptcy reform that was eventually passed 85 to 15 by the Senate.
The loss of five Republicans last year did not warm the climate of the Senate, which is not only much more partisan but also less functional than when I covered it 40 years ago. In those days, a filibuster was a rarely used weapon requiring round-the-clock sessions and sleeping cots for senators. Now it is a mere spoken threat that may eliminate a mechanism that for centuries has facilitated the difficult course of legislation.