- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

Over the next few months, four of the most politically charged and significant public policy issues will congregate at the altar of the Senate Finance Committee a panel some believe has near-supernatural jurisdictional power. This venerable institution will host either bipartisan marriages or bitter funerals for most of the major legislation considered by the 108th Congress, including the economic growth bill, Medicare and Medicaid overhauls and welfare reform.
Moreover, legislative leaders may use the special budget rules, known as reconciliation, only for the economic stimulus bill. The three remaining measures will likely have to garner 60 votes in the Senate to ensure passage. This makes the contribution of the Finance Committee more vital than ever like a free throw in a tied game with no time left on the clock.
Given the rancorous start to this legislative year, including the ongoing fight over the nomination of Miguel Estrada, it might appear that all four of these measures would fail in the closely divided, hyper-partisan Senate environment. Yet, the Senate Finance Committee has a long and distinguished history of bipartisan marriages. Its activities over the next several months will serve as a harbinger of this year's legislative agenda.
Whether the committee consummates legislative success or drives a stake through the process depends largely on the posturing and attitude of its Democrats. "If they choose obstructionism, fueled by blind loyalty to leadership that will lead to one outcome," said a long-time Senate watcher. "Or they can follow the great tradition of Democrats like Russell Long and Pat Moynihan, joining with Republicans to achieve major bipartisan accomplishments the choice is theirs."
Watching the Finance Committee over the last two years underscores this point.
In 2001, Sens. Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican and Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, sat alone in the pews of the Committee back-room and hammered out the Senate version of the president's tax bill. It worked. The panel produced a bipartisan bill and the Senate passed it by a vote of 58-33, with 12 Democrats supporting the measure on the floor. The committee followed the regular order process like a legislative liturgy, consistent with its grand traditions. In doing so, the Committee devised a much-needed antidote to gridlock.
Last year's Medicare prescription drug debate was a different story. The Democratic leadership prohibited the committee from using regular order and the legislation died. Bypassing the committee process, the leadership brought an ill-conceived bill directly to the floor, without the benefit of the bipartisan massage normally administered by the Finance Committee. The legislation failed. "If the Finance Committee was allowed to act last year, the Senate would have passed a Medicare prescription drug bill," said a Senate Republican aide.
During the next several months, Congress will address the president's economic growth package, Medicare prescription drug legislation, Medicaid changes and welfare reform. Bills in all four areas are likely to pass the House of Representatives before the August break, leaving their fate in the sanctuary of Congress' upper body. In the next stage of the legislative ritual, the venerable Finance panel gets its chance to turn water into wine. Throughout its rich history, the committee, when allowed to work under regular order, usually produces strong, bipartisan legislation. It will have that opportunity again in the near future.
Congressional insiders say the budget resolution, which the House and Senate will consider this month, will include reconciliation instructions for only the economic growth package. That means Medicare, Medicaid and welfare reform legislation will likely require 60 votes to pass the Senate a possible prescription for gridlock.
If the Senate Finance Committee produces bipartisan legislation on all these matters, it is probably a strong signal that the legislation could survive the entire process. If the panel fails to engineer bipartisan agreement, the fate of all these matters is sealed.
In 1814, the British burned the U.S. Capitol, scorching America's symbol of democracy. Nevertheless, the flames also tempered like steel the resolve of the leaders who labored in it. Working in temporary quarters, senators began to build out of the ashes enduring institutions aimed at finding consensus and mediating disputes in American public policy. Looking to the future, they created the first standing committees of the Senate among them the venerable committee on Finance, now almost 190 years old.
Democratic members of the panel hold the key to whether the Senate will celebrate legislative success or compose a funeral dirge. Clearly, their leaders do not want shared success with Republicans. The question is whether Finance Committee Democrats see things the same way. Will they continue a grand tradition facilitating bipartisan matrimony in the Senate or end up serving as divisive pallbearers?

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