- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2001

Senate Democrats are using their new committee chairmanships to blunt the Bush administration's policies on a broad range of issues, from the federal judiciary to the death penalty to energy and missile defense.
Since taking control of the Senate on June 6, the Democrats have held hearings to pressure the administration to impose energy price caps in California, to justify examining the ideology of judicial nominees, and to highlight the issues of "climate change" and fairness in imposing the federal death penalty.
Asked whether Democrats are simply trying to make life difficult for the White House, Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, grinned and replied, "Politics, around this place?"
"It's been a relatively short time for the Democrats in charge," Mr. Miller said, declining to accuse his colleagues of waging partisan investigations. "Let's see how it all works out a few months down the road."
Senate Republicans say the Democrats clearly have had a partisan agenda with their oversight hearings since assuming power.
"To me, that was one of the most significant things in the changeover — oversight," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee. "I don't know that the kind of hearings we're seeing now are real oversight hearings; they're more political hearings."
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said Democrats are motivated by "investigating Republicans instead of legislating solutions."
"They're still learning how to be a governing majority so they're falling back on playing the blame game instead of learning how to lead," said Ronald Bonjean Jr. "We've seen that on energy, hearings on judicial ideology and a host of other issues."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, encouraged the committees' oversight role when he put on hold the panels' legislative function during talks with Republicans on how to reorganize the Senate.
Much of the negotiations over three weeks centered on Republican efforts to get Democrats to promise fair treatment of judicial nominees.
Republican senators view as especially ominous a hearing held by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee, on the validity of questioning judicial nominees about their political ideology.
"The president has said he is going to make ideology part of why he chooses judges," Mr. Schumer said on "Meet the Press" Sunday. "In his campaign, the president said, 'I don't believe in liberal activist judges. I believe in strict constructionists, and those are the kind of judges I will appoint.'"
Judges with a conservative philosophy are known as "strict constructionists" because they tend to apply the law more narrowly than "activist" judges.
"If it's good for the president to choose a judge of a certain philosophy … why shouldn't it be appropriate for the Senate to ask questions about what that strict constructionism means and how it goes?" Mr. Schumer said.
Replied Mr. Sessions: "This is a planned attack on Bush judges. This is changing the ground rules, precisely what they want to do."
But the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, believes the hearing backfired on Mr. Schumer.
"I think it was a little shocking to him to find out that people like [former Clinton White House counsel] Lloyd Cutler, who is as Democratic as a Democrat can be, came out and said no, ideology should not play a role," Mr. Hatch said.
"I happen to know that the Reagan administration and the [previous] Bush administration never asked anyone what their ideology was — and you can tell by some of their opinions," Mr. Hatch said. "Take [Supreme Court Justice David] Souter, for example. He's as pro-choice as you can find."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, has held two hearings on the federal death penalty during his month at the helm — on racial disparities in imposing the death penalty and on the bipartisan Innocence Protection Act to guarantee competent counsel to defendants facing the death penalty.
"We have a duty to get involved — to try to contain the crisis — before an innocent person is put to death," Mr. Leahy said.
Mr. Hatch said Mr. Leahy's ultimate goal is to outlaw the federal death penalty.

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