- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Given its unique rules, the Senate is prone to allergies of obstruction. Party unity sometimes serves as a balm, helping to sooth raw and irritated legislative passageways, clearing the way for each side to accomplish some of its objectives.

Yet when party unity frays, the hurdles to success get magnified — resulting in the allergies of obstruction infecting and spreading through the entire process.

Today, both parties find problems in unity, making it tougher to advance their political and policy agendas. Whichever party generates the higher level of unity between now and the elections will enjoy both policy success and an effective echo chamber for its presidential and Senate candidates.

On the Republican side, lack of unity on the budget will create longer-term legislative-management challenges. After weeks of negotiations with Republican moderates, GOP leaders are still one vote short of adopting the conference report on the fiscal 2005 budget. The House of Representatives passed the budget conference agreement on May 19. But failure to pass the blueprint in the Senate makes the challenges of managing that body even more daunting and party unity even more essential.

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles of Oklahoma recognize the implications of not reaching an agreement better than anyone. That’s why both still will not write the budget’s final obituary. And since no budget blueprint creates big problems, they’ll keep trying. It is a developing story.

Not having a budget has major consequences for this year’s appropriations process. Without it, overall domestic spending is capped at last year’s level (about $814 billion). Not a bad outcome from a fiscal conservative’s perspective.

But there is a catch. Let’s say the Senate brings the defense appropriations measure to the floor. With a budget agreement, each of the 13 appropriations bills receives a so-called 302(b) allocation of the overall pot of money. Defense’s share is about $384 billion for fiscal 2005 (more if you includeemergency fundingforIraq). Floor amendments increasingfunding above that level are subject to a 60-vote point of order, making more spending difficult.

Yet, without a budget agreement, the rules change. The Senate could bring up the defense bill and add spending items with a simple majority (51 votes) until it reached the $814 billion cap — potentially massive amounts of new obligations. Moreover, spending doesn’t even have to be in the domestic discretionary category. For example, senators could boost Medicare entitlements as long as funding in fiscal 2005 did not exceed $814 billion.

No budget agreement also means that extensions of expiring tax cuts, like the child credit and marriage penalty, also may take 60 votes to pass. Finally, passing a debt-limit increase later this year also will prove more complicated due to the lack of a budget agreement.

Yet if Republicans face challenges on the budget due to fissures in party unity, Democratic leaders confront the unity challenge as well — and like too much Claritin, excessive party unity and the accompanying allergies of obstruction have negative side effects.

Democrats in the Senate must answer a fundamental question: Is their party’s interest better served by obstructionist gambits or by compromising on legislation promoted by important constituencies?

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle is in a particularly delicate position. Leading up to the Reagan funeral, the Senate was on a “mini-roll,” according to one Republican senator, passing legislation on international taxation, highway funding, Internet taxes and Project Bioshield, all in a matter of weeks. Senate Democrats also agreed to confirm 25 judges to lifetime terms.

“There’s some grumbling among Democrats that too many things are getting done,” one knowledgeable Democratic lobbyist told me. “Some liberals in the caucus believe the leadership is giving away the store.”

Yet Mr. Daschle in particular is walking a very fine line. He can’t win re-election in November in South Dakota if the obstructionist label sticks. Yet, allowing too much legislation to move forward angers many members of his caucus.

Forging unity will help Republicans manage the Senate and will assist them politically for the remainder of the year. How to achieve cohesion on critical issues like the budget is the challenge.

For Democrats, the equation is more complicated. Unity helps thwart the Republicans’ legislative agenda, but it also causes nasty side effects. This includes some potentially fatal political hacking and wheezing due to the allergy called obstruction this November in battleground presidential states and key Senate contests.

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