- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2001

When Maria Cantwell was officially declared senator-elect from the state of Washington on Dec. 1, prospects for an evenly divided U.S. Senate increased markedly. Six days later, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Republican from Mississippi, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, began negotiating how power would be distributed between the parties in a Senate split down the middle. On Dec. 12, when George W. Bush finally won the presidency, an evenly divided Senate became a certainty. Negotiations between Messrs. Lott and Daschle intensified.

Indeed, Senate Republicans, who recaptured majority status in the 1994 election, had become accustomed to the perks and the power associated with the 54-46 advantage they enjoyed in Congress's upper body before the Nov. 7 election. But they knew some accommodations such as providing the Democratic committee contingents with increased funding, staffs and office space would have to be made in recognition of the Senate's new composition. Few, however, were prepared for the deal that Mr. Lott presented them as a virtual fait accompli. In the view of a significant number of unhappy Republicans, who argued that Vice President-elect Dick Cheney's tie-breaking floor vote effectively retained majority control of the Senate in Republican hands, Mr. Daschle had taken Mr. Lott to the cleaners.

Indeed, in the historic power-sharing arrangement, Mr. Lott agreed to Mr. Daschle's principal demand of equal representation on each and every Senate committee. Most Republican committee chairmen not surprisingly, GOP gadfly John McCain was a notable exception understandably had demanded a one-seat edge on their panels. Not without reason, they feared that evenly split panels would fail to discharge legislation to the Senate floor with the customarily requisite majority vote. (Tie votes in committee have effectively killed legislation.) To address this problem, the agreement permits either party leader to bring a bill or a nomination directly to the floor in the event of a tie vote in committee. There, if the Senate is precisely divided in half, Mr. Cheney will be able to exercise his power to cast tie-breaking votes. Committee chairmen, all of whom will remain Republicans, will be able to exercise the same prerogative to advance to the full committee legislation that receives a tie vote in subcommittees.

Mr. Lott, who will remain majority leader, retained his right to determine the party breakdown for Senate members of House-Senate conference committees, where differences between House and Senate bills are ironed out before final passage. In most cases, according to Mr. Lott, Republicans will make up a majority of the Senate's conference contingent. This is crucially important because each chamber in a conference committee has a single vote, which is determined by the majority vote of its contingent. Evenly divided Senate conference contingents would allow Democrats to scuttle any legislation passed by a majority vote in the Senate and the House.

In a committee-dominated legislative system in which majority votes in the committees have historically operated as virtually impenetrable gates for legislation and nominations, why did Mr. Lott acquiesce to Mr. Daschle's demand for equal committee representation? One explanation is that he had no choice. Resolutions that the Senate must pass in order to organize itself are subject to filibuster. Democrats left little doubt that they would use this gambit, which requires 60 votes to thwart, unless their chief demand was met. Not only would that have tied the Senate in knots; it also would have delayed confirmation of Mr. Bush's nominees and stopped his agenda dead in its tracks.

"This is a classic case of extending the hand of friendship," Mr. Lott declared on the Senate floor before the agreement was ratified, though he also acknowledged, "this resolution may haunt me, but it is fair." Indeed, it is. And Mr. Lott will likely learn soon enough if he really did give away the store, a consequence that would be haunting to more than just the majority leader.


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