- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

After months of gleefully obstructing President Bush's agenda, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is finally starting to kick things into high gear. What has suddenly made the South Dakotan find religion? Why, James Talent has.

Mr. Talent's bid for the Senate from Missouri, which in many respects is similar to tight contests nationwide, has one very important distinction: His victory alone could hand the GOP at least a temporary majority. The race is a special election, to fill the remainder of Mel Carnahan's term, the dead man who beat John Ashcroft two years ago. The Democratic governor appointed Mr. Carnahan's widow, Jean Carnahan, to fill the seat until this November's special election.

Mr. Talent would become senator immediately upon winning the special election, not in January like every other newly elected member throwing the GOP into the majority for any lame-duck session at the end of the year, regardless of who controls the Senate come January.

Lame-duck speculation has heated up recently because, well, Mr. Talent has. Although the race is officially a dead heat in published numbers, the Republican challenger is up four to seven points in internal tracking polls and even a prominent Democratic pollster concedes that Mr. Talent is trending upward. Democrats are bracing for the worst.

Mr. Daschle is threatening to keep senators in town until Oct. 18 two weeks before election day and even hold working weekends. Some Republicans believe this is frantic arm-flapping, but little else. "They have more vulnerable incumbents than us, so Daschle's not going to trap them here on the weekends," notes a senior Republican Senate staffer.

In recent weeks, Mr. Daschle has moved considerably in the direction of the Republican position of passing a long-term continuing resolution to put federal funding on autopilot till February or March. Although he has yet to publicly embrace that stance, he may have no other option to avoid the potential of a GOP-controlled lame-duck session.

The Senate has only passed three of 13 appropriations bills to fund the government for the fiscal year starting that starts next week and President Bush has yet to receive even a single one for his signature.

While making public threats about scheduling massive amounts of overtime, Mr. Daschle has been working furiously behind the scenes for the best way to avoid a post-election session.

Given the history of appropriations, there's not even a remote possibility that 13 separate bills could make their way to the president's desk before the election. That means the only avenue for avoiding a lame-duck gathering is a long-term continuing resolution something Republicans have wanted all along, because it ups the odds that spending will be kept in check.

Democrats publicly insist that they're not worried about a GOP-majority lame-duck session, because they'd still control the committees due to parliamentary maneuvering. However, a senior Republican senator notes, "Daschle knows that we'll just Rule 14 everything to the floor."

Rule 14 is a parliamentary procedure by which a majority vote can remove bills bottled up in committee, allowing the full body to vote on the legislation on the Senate floor.

A titular GOP majority could also bypass the Democrat-controlled committees for Mr. Bush's nominees being held hostage with a move called a discharge petition.

But, the Senate being the Senate means that the Democrats can filibuster to their hearts' content and that could last an eternity, or at least until January. Such a Democratic blockade, however, would not be politically pain-free.

Since filibusters require members to effectively vote on each bill or nominee, Democrats who are vulnerable come 2004 could be placed in the unenviable position of having to oppose the new Department of Homeland Security or Hispanic judicial appointee Miguel Estrada.

Of course, all this could be wishful GOP thinking if, say, Sen. Lincoln Chafee who praised Sen. James Jeffords' party-switching antics last year leaves the reservation. Mr. Chafee is just unpredictable enough that he could deny the GOP the opportunity to put the political squeeze on Senate Democrats.

With neither side particularly eager to play Russian roulette with a lame-duck session, the new battleground likely will be how to structure a long-term continuing resolution (CR). Since CRs essentially take the previous year's spending levels and add on a few percent for inflation, the big debate will be whether or not to count the post-September 11 $40 billion spending spree as the one-time expense that it was, or something that needs to be repeated for next year.

Considering the bang-up job Republicans have done in recent years battling government largesse, it may take more than just a little Talent for the GOP to win this spending fight.

Joel Mowbray is a reporter for National Review. E-mail:jdmowbra@erols.com.

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