- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2000

A bill to allow voting booths on U.S. military bases has died in Congress after Republican backers were told that Democratic senators would object to a quick floor vote in the waning days of the 106th Congress.

Aides for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, wanted to negotiate the bill's passage on Thursday and Friday as the chamber finished up work on the 2001 budget and then quit for the year.

But aides were told that while Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, would support the bill, there were some unnamed Democrats who would protest what is called "unanimous consent" to the bill's passage.

A senior Republican leadership aide quoted Mr. Daschle's staff as saying several weeks ago, "We're not going to object to this bill. But I have checked with my people, and there are people on my side that will object."

An aide said that, as the session wound down Friday, Mr. Lott's people made the decision not to push the bill based on "our own information" that some Democrats would object.

Republican senators in October cleared the bill for unanimous consent.

The aide said that since an objection meant the Senate would have to then debate the bill over the weekend, it was decided to let it die this year and try again in 2001.

"Senator Lott has also made it clear that we will be working with the new administration to get this done in the next Congress," the staffer said. "I think we are going to have an emphasis on election reform, not campaign finance reform."

Ranit Schmelzer, spokeswoman for Mr. Daschle, said the Senate minority leader would not have objected if Mr. Lott brought the bill to the floor last week.

"He would support the bill and vote for it when it came to the floor," Miss Schmelzer said. "He would not object to it if it came to the floor. But there may be other Democrats who may or may not object to it. I don't have any information on that."

The Senate maneuvering comes at a time when some military personnel are resentful of recent Democratic Party efforts to disqualify overseas ballots in Florida to win the state for Vice President Al Gore.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, cleared the House, 297-114. It is designed to ease the voting burden on service members by allowing, but not requiring, the military's three service secretaries to authorize polling places on domestic installations. The legislation is primarily aimed at remote bases where personnel and their families must drive considerable distances to a polling location.

Senate aides said Democrats objected to the bill for three principal reasons: There was already legislation that allowed existing military polling places to remain open for the 2000 election; the bill would help relatively few personnel since most of the military vote by mail through absentee ballots; and the Clinton administration fears that voting centers could politicize nonpartisan military bases.

"They dug in," said a Republican staffer. "They didn't want to do anything."

Mr. Thomas pushed his legislation after the Pentagon sent out memos signaling it intended to crack down on commanders who were allowing voting booths in apparent violation of the law.

When the bill arrived in the Senate, Republicans attempted to "hot line" it by bypassing committees and having it approved on the floor unanimously. All Senate Republicans agreed.

Mr. Thomas, chairman of the House Administration Committee, said he will attempt to fold the military voting bill next year into a larger election bill.

Two days before the House passed the bill in October, Defense Department General Counsel Douglas A. Dworkin strongly opposed it in a letter to Mr. Thomas.

"The Department has a long standing policy prohibiting the use of military installations as polling sites for elections," Mr. Dworkin wrote on Oct. 10. "This policy is based on sound public policy of maintaining strict separation between the military and the political process. The policy of separating the military and partisan politics is critically important to maintaining public support for and confidence in our armed forces, as well as maintaining good order and discipline within military ranks."

Mr. Thomas responded in a letter to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

"Allowing and even encouraging people to exercise their right to vote does not involve [the] military in 'partisan politics' as the general counsel alleges," wrote Mr. Thomas, along with Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Stump, Arizona Republican, and Armed Services Chairman Floyd D. Spence, South Carolina Republican.

"In fact, we are surprised that any DoD counsel would make such an argument in view of DoD's active and well-regarded voter assistance program."

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