The office of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle yesterday denied he is blocking a bill on military polling places but could not guarantee that Democrats will let the measure come to a vote before the congressional session ends in two weeks.
Republican aides continued to insist that Mr. Daschle has held up action on the bill since mid-October.
“I’m 100 percent positive. Senator Daschle has not attempted to block the bill,” said Ranit Schmelzer, spokeswoman for the South Dakota Democrat. “He has not blocked it. He never would block it.”
Mr. Daschle’s office received angry phone calls from citizens yesterday after The Washington Times reported he is holding up the bill that would allow polling places on domestic military bases. The Clinton administration is on record as opposing the measure, saying it would violate Pentagon rules against political activity on armed forces installations.
Republican Senate aides said yesterday that the House-passed bill “cleared” all Republican senators for a floor vote. But when staffers checked with cloakroom aides representing Mr. Daschle, they were told the bill was being “held,” sources said.
But Ms. Schmelzer disputed that. She said that after Republican aides in the cloakroom, the party’s legislative command post, asked their Democratic counterparts, they checked with Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee and received no clearance to proceed.
She said that from that point in mid-October the aides working for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, never pressed for a floor vote.
“The way you know Republicans want to push a bill and force us is to publicly object,” Ms. Schmelzer said. “They never even took this to that point. They never really pressed the bill. It never reached the level of Senator Daschle… . If they were really trying to push, Lott would have pushed Daschle or pushed for unanimous consent to force us to block it publicly, which they never did.”
“It stopped at the cloakroom level. They’re using Daschle as a general phrase that the Democrats haven’t passed this by unanimous consent.”
Ms. Schmelzer said she does not know if the bill will reach a floor vote because there could be Democratic opposition.
A Republican aide said, “If they’re not willing to clear it right now, there is Democratic opposition… . If they’re telling you he’s not holding the bill, he’s not telling the truth. It’s cut and dried.”
The aide said that shortly after the bill arrived from the House on Oct. 13, it was “hotlined” for unanimous approval on the Senate floor before Congress recessed prior to the November election.
The source claimed that Mr. Daschle’s aides said the bill was being held on “numerous” occasions, including as late as Friday.
“The Republican cloakroom checked numerous times with the Democratic cloakroom, and they were told it was not cleared. It’s not cleared on the Democratic side. That means Daschle is holding it up. So Daschle has a hold on this bill.”
Asked why Republicans did not push publicly for a vote, the aide said, “Right now, the Republicans are not trying to embarrass the Democrats at all because we are trying to close our budget battle.”
The bill’s fate is being debated amid a backdrop of angry complaints from service members against the Democrats. Party lawyers launched a Florida-wide effort last month to disqualify scores of overseas military ballots to help Vice President Al Gore overtake George W. Bush’s slim lead.
The bill passed the House Oct. 12 in a 297-114 bipartisan vote.
Chiefly sponsored by Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, the bill would authorize but not order service secretaries to allow polling places on U.S. military bases. Mr. Thomas, chairman of the House Administration Committee, said personnel at remote bases, such as Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave desert, must drive considerable distances to vote.
Mr. Thomas said he proposed the bill after the Pentagon began more vigorously enforcing a policy against opening voting booths on military bases. The policy does not prevent polling stations at state-controlled National Guard armories.
“We’re fielding a lot of calls from military people,” said Mr. Thomas’ spokesman, Jason Poblete. ” ‘We want this. We want this.’ “
“Our committee has been told by the Senate leadership that there is a hold on the bill from Senator Daschle’s office. So there’s been staff-to-staff communication to that effect,” he said.
The Clinton administration went on record as opposing the bill in an Oct. 10 letter to Mr. Thomas from Pentagon General Counsel Douglas A. Dworkin.
“We strongly disagree that it is appropriate for the fundamental political activity of voting to take place at locations that the Department of Defense strives to make politically neutral and nonpartisan,” Mr. Dworkin wrote.
“We recognize that some installations have overlooked the department’s policy on this issue in the past and that some military facilities have been used as polling places in some localities. In some cases, short-term waivers of the policy have been granted if an alternative location could not be identified in time to avoid disruption to an upcoming election.”
Mr. Thomas said that, if his legislation dies this year, he may include it in a broader election bill next year.