- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Legislation gets secretly bottled up in the Senate through a murky process, according to senators who blame special-interest groups and staff for putting holds on various bills.

At times, “I don’t even realize I have a hold on something,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, told colleagues yesterday.

He and other senators talked about the secret process during a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee, which is considering legislation that would put an end to the “anonymous holds” that have been an unwritten tradition in the Senate for many years.

A nomination or a legislative bill can be blocked from reaching the floor for a final vote if a senator or staffer informs leadership — sometimes in writing — of an objection. Holds last indefinitely and are sometimes used as leverage to win some other battle entirely unrelated to the bill or nominee being held up.

Though some senators choose to make their holds public, they are guaranteed secrecy if they do not.

Senate Resolution 151, introduced by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, would end the secrecy of such holds by requiring a senator to note his or her objection publicly in the Congressional Record within two days of lodging it with leadership.

The bill’s sponsors, said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, are “asking us to match our courage and conviction with our conduct and do it in the light of day.”

Walter J. Stewart, who served as secretary of the Senate from 1987 to 1994, said the holding practice originated as a courtesy to allow a senator to pause legislation for further study.

In recent decades, he said, the process has become secret and is often used as a tool by a senator to single-handedly stymie legislation or nominees.

The discussion in the rules committee about holds comes after a debate earlier this month over filibustering against judicial nominees. Democrats are filibustering two of President Bush’s judicial choices and accuse Republicans in the past of using anonymous holds to block some 60 of President Clinton’s nominees. The primary difference between lodging a hold and filibustering is that holds are anonymous.

At yesterday’s Rules Committee hearing, senators described the unchecked ability of outside special-interest groups to call a senator’s office and stop legislation or nominations without public scrutiny.

“A lot of this is done by outside interests,” Mr. Byrd said. “They call the staff and get a staff person” who starts the hold. “I’m surprised sometimes to find I have a hold on something.”

Anonymous holds can be a nightmare for those sponsoring legislation.

“Senator Wyden and I have spent countless hours in the wee hours of the morning chasing rolling holds which have nothing to do with the legislation we’re trying to move,” Mr. Smith said.

“It’s enormously frustrating to me to find out the senator supposedly having the hold has no knowledge of the hold,” he said. “Much of this is done and driven by staffers. I find that insulting to the whole system of the United States Senate.”

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said he recalled the headache of tracking down 15 secret holds on one piece of legislation. He warned that tinkering with the tradition should be done carefully so as not to alter the chemistry in the Senate that fosters extensive compromise.

“The only way you get compromise sometimes,” he said, “is by stopping the trains and making people listen.”

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