- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2000

With the pundits predicting, wrongly, that it's doubtful the presidency is worth having this time around, one thing is certain the congressional leadership has the opportunity of a lifetime.

It's possible the White House could prove as much a liability as an asset to the party running it. If the economy collapses, the public, untutored by the press to understand that economic effects have causes, will attribute current events to contemporaneous officeholders. But, of course, the ship of state turns slowly, registering a change in course only an administration or two after the wheel has been turned by the policy makers. But whether or not the occupant of the White House comes to be seen as the Grinch who stole prosperity, congressional Republicans should stop carping about the liberal press and dishonest Democrats and seize the day instead.

Under no circumstances should the congressional Republicans look defensive. All conflict strategists from Sun Zu to Churchill say the best defense is a strong offense. Clearly, little law will pass, but the policies debated should represent the very best of Republican thinking and teaching. Otherwise Republicans will be in the unpalatable position of merely mounting daily filibusters against Democrat policy initiatives.

Of course, the media will characterize any Republican strategy other than subservience and contrition as unforgivable intransigence. So what's new? The Senate Republicans especially, given their rules which prevent control by a simple majority, should forge ahead and translate a difficult situation into their biggest opportunity. Their first step should be to elect the strongest possible leadership.

To the surprise of senate veterans, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico is challenging Larry Craig of Idaho for the chairmanship of the Senate Policy Committee. This committee has the responsibility for explaining all legislative proposals and the procedures for debating them to the Republican Party. The Policy Committee staff briefs the GOP on legislation and makes available the best legal, academic, and strategic minds in the country for senators wishing to study a matter in depth.

Larry Craig, the current Policy Committee chairman, is a proven consensus builder, a serious analyst, and a strong voice for Western states, which, with their small populations, are often outvoted in the House of Representatives. Mr. Craig is personable, and popular with Democrats even when they disagree with him. His forensic skills are precisely those that will be needed in the new Senate.

Senate insiders were initially shocked by Mr. Domenici's unprecedented challenge to Mr. Craig, mainly because Republicans have never run for leadership offices unless the seat has been vacated or there was a particular reason (as in the replacing of Sens. Packwood and Chaffee as conference chairmen; each was considered too far out of the party's mainstream).

Oddly, this is precisely the ground on which Mr. Domenici is running. He claims, through his chief of staff Steve Bell, to want to bring a new (read "more liberal") viewpoint to Senate Republicans which is exactly what they don't need after the mother of all close elections.

Mr. Bell's staff colleagues claim he is conducting a lobbying effort parallel to that of his boss, but one far more insidious: Mr. Bell calls Mr. Domenici's anti-Craig efforts a way of expressing dissatisfaction with Majority Leader Trent Lott's leadership. Mr. Bell is said to hope conservatives, dissatisfied at times with Mr. Lott's somewhat flaccid leadership, will fall for electing a liberal to the job of Policy Committee chairman as a remedy.

Mr. Domenici, who was first sworn in in l973, believes his long Senate service entitles him to the Policy Committee with its 20-odd staffers. But this position undoes one of the hard-won reforms the Republican Conference in the Senate made in the early 1990s to limit the term of most leadership positions precisely in order to permit less senior members a chance at the spots. (Mr. Craig's term expires in 2002.) Mr. Domenici is probably doomed to disappointment. While Mr. Bell is claiming an improbable number of votes for Mr. Domenici, close scrutiny of his list shows at least four votes virtually certain for Mr. Craig, who needs only a simple majority to win.

As the Senate Republicans begin this difficult period, a Craig victory augurs well unless the attempted coup by Mr. Domenici is only the start of internecine warfare among the Senate Republicans.

M.D.B. Carlisle was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Daniel Oliver was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission from 1986 to 1989.

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