- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

The Senate ground to a halt yesterday as Democrats blocked passage of a bill renewing the 1996 welfare reform law, and both parties see little chance of any major legislation passing in the near future.

Bad blood from last year’s energy bill debacle, Medicare prescription drug fights and judicial nomination squabbles has spilled into legislative battles this year, with neither side trusting the other to follow usual order.

“In the 40 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen this,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who blamed Republicans for refusing to allow votes on Democratic priorities.

“They have a Republican president, a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and they have a responsibility to deal with the public’s business. And it’s an absolute abdication,” he said.

But Republicans blamed Democrats for refusing to “horse trade” to move bills along.

“We’re willing to pay a ransom, but we expect our victims back,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, who said that with the way things are going he doesn’t expect any major legislation other than a budget and spending bills to pass this year.

On a 51-47 vote, the Senate failed to gain the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster of the welfare bill. Only Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, joined Republicans in voting to end debate and bring the bill to a final up-or-down vote.

Last week, Republicans failed 51-47 to break a filibuster on a bill to revamp U.S. international taxation laws to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling.

In both cases, Democrats insisted that the Senate first vote on other amendments before allowing a final vote on the bill and letting it go to a conference committee with the House.

They sought a vote yesterday on an amendment to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7 an hour. And last week they wanted a vote on an amendment to overturn rules proposed by the Labor Department that would reclassify 8 million employees and their eligibility for overtime. Democrats also are seeking a vote on further extending unemployment compensation benefits.

Republicans said they will allow those votes, but in return they want to set a deadline for a final vote on the bill and then send it to conference to prevent new roadblocks.

Democrats said they don’t trust Republicans to run House-Senate conferences properly after some Democrats were excluded from energy and Medicare negotiations last year. Instead, they want to pass legislation by “pre-conferencing” — informal negotiations before a bill passes — or by sending new amended bills back and forth between the House and Senate. Those methods were used on 70 bills in the last two congresses, according to Democrats.

The stalemate shows no sign of ending and every sign of blocking other bills.

“It’s nothing now. It’s nada,” Mr. Kennedy said.

As for the welfare bill, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said it will pass at some point.

“This is not a question about whether or not we support welfare reform. We will get an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote on welfare reform,” he said.

The 1996 law, with its “work-first” approach and unprecedented five-year limit on federal welfare benefits, was enacted with bipartisan support.

It is widely credited with helping reduce welfare rolls by 60 percent, but despite the success, the Senate has been unable to pass a new reform bill since the law expired in September 2002. Instead, Congress has passed six extensions of the existing law, the latest of which expires June 30.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said yesterday that it was “disappointing that a minority of U.S. senators is preventing the Senate from voting to reauthorize the landmark welfare to work legislation.”

Republicans said they hope that Democrats pay a price on Election Day.

“This Daschle graveyard will become an issue in the election,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican.

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