- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

The first week of a new Congress is like a dysfunctional family wedding smiles, ceremony and civility on the surface, yet just below churn combustible emotions and personal animosity. Moreover, like people watching an incendiary marital gathering, observing the top four House and Senate leaders last week was instructive. To the trained eye, it provided insights into the unique political, policy and institutional challenges facing each of them.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi learned the challenges of leading an increasingly left-leaning caucus in the House, facing a nation and president positioned more in the center of the political spectrum. Sensing dangerous personal political consequences for supporting a liberal-oriented leadership team, four of her colleagues opposed Mrs. Pelosi as the Democratic nominee for Speaker on the first House roll call the ultimate vote of no confidence in this city. How she negotiates these strong tugs to the left from a large segment of her caucus will test her leadership abilities daily during the next two years.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle spent the week wrangling over matters great and small from whether to launch a presidential bid himself to the ratio of money allocated to parties on each committee. As majority leader last year, he led a party saddled with the charge of obstructing a popular President's agenda. He is now minority leader, in charge of what minorities do best in legislatures obstruct.
The fight over committee funding is a good example. Unlike the House, where all 435 Members face re-election every two years, the Senate is a so-called "continuing body." Only a third face biennial elections, and the Senate operates under an "organizing resolution," which appoints members to committees and determines the size of their budgets. So, until the Senate passes a new resolution, it finds itself in the bizarre situation where, by precedent, Sen. Bill Frist was recognized as majority leader, but Democrats continued to chair all the committees.
Mr. Daschle wants more money and staff for his party than historically allocated to the minority. Until resolved, the Senate will not finish the fiscal year 2003 appropriations bills, nor confirm presidential judicial appointments, nor pass the budget and economic stimulus legislation, thereby making him vulnerable once again to the charge of orchestrating obstruction.
His second challenge is that Sens. Lieberman, Kerry and Edwards and possibly others plan to run for president. The Democratic leader faces the challenge of leading a caucus where several of his colleagues not only want to become leaders of the party, but also leader of the free world.
Navigating between legitimate opposition and petty obstruction, without scraping the tall timber represented by his party's presidential aspirants, will require that Mr. Daschle's political GPS system be fully charged.
Dr. Frist confronts the challenge of serving as majority leader in an institution where a minority often rules. Senate Republicans, however, recently added some new organizational tactics to confront these unique challenges.
Borrowing from the House, Republican leaders in the Senate, led by conference Chairman Rick Santorum, will mount an unprecedented communications coordination strategy linking the actions of Senate committees with the policy goals of the Senate GOP. Communication often breaks down between leadership wishes and committee chairmens' actions. This initiative should help.
Moreover, Republican Whip Mitch McConnell implemented a "grow the vote" system, linking floor scheduling of particular measures with Senators' political and policy wishes. Hill watchers credit this approach, pioneered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, for the success of House Republicans in managing a narrow majority over the last several years.
Finally, House Speaker Dennis Hastert learned he may be in the most enviable position of the four leaders. The speaker increased his grip on the majority by boosting its size in the last election. He also continues to lead an institution with far different rules than the Senate, where majority control means the ability to govern with 50 percent plus one.
Mr. Hastert is also the only one of the four leaders who is an "incumbent" in his position. Dr. Frist and Mrs. Pelosi are new party chiefs and Mr. Daschle shifts from majority to minority leader so, the learning curve associated with a new role applies to all three. This leaves the speaker as a returning leader with more votes in his pocket plus four years of experience in running his institution.
Each of the four party leaders faces formidable challenges. Last week provided a first glimpse into their temperaments and the unique circumstances they face, not to mention the resources, experience and baggage they bring to these positions. The opening week of the 108th Congress went off without unduly dysfunctional moments. Yet, the political equivalent of an inebriated "Uncle Joe moment" at the reception is bound to occur sometime. These four leaders will be left to clean up the mess.


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