Homeland politics

Posted: Oct 24, 2002 12:00 AM
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 of Texas. 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.