- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

Republicans in both the House and Senate are putting in place sweeping rule changes that will enhance their considerable power over Democrats and give Republican leaders new tools to enforce discipline within their ranks.

Democrats are crying foul, but the history of Congress is replete with examples of both parties trying to build on their partisan advantages and tighten their grip on the legislative machinery that cranks out the laws of the land.

For example, it was the reform-minded 1975 freshman class of 75 Democrats elected after the Watergate scandal that led to some of the rule changes the Republican majority of today has used to its advantage.

Among other things, the post-Watergate rules ultimately led to the speaker of the House controlling the Rules Committee, which sets the ground rules for the debate and amending of legislation on the floor.

Nothing the Republican majorities have proposed for the new Congress, though, compares with the remarkably autocratic rule by which Thomas Reed, a Republican from Maine, governed the House in 1889: “No dilatory motion shall be entertained by the speaker.”

Still, current House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, are clearly emboldened by the election this fall and are considering some far-reaching rule changes.

In the House, Mr. Hastert has indicated he does not intend to allow bills to come to the floor for a vote unless they are backed by what one of his aides described as “a majority of the majority,” that is, a majority of his own party.

The House leadership also is looking at ways to rewrite arcane budget rules to mask the cost of changes to Social Security, thereby lessening the political risk of undertaking such an effort.

Already, the House has voted to change its rules to permit a leader or committee chairman to retain those posts even if indicted on a felony charge, a change apparently intended to keep House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, in his leadership — and party disciplinarian — post should he become embroiled in a criminal investigation in his home state.

In the Senate, Mr. Frist already has been given an important tool for controlling his fellow Republicans — the power to appoint half his party’s committee assignments on the most powerful panels, including Appropriations; Finance; Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Foreign Relations; and Armed Services. Previously, seniority determined those assignments.

Now, Mr. Frist is pressing for a proposal that would give the majority party two-thirds of every committee’s budget and staff allocation. That would be a return to the traditional way of dividing those resources. The tradition of two-thirds majority, one-third minority was abandoned after the 2000 election, when the Senate had a 50-50 split.

More importantly, however, Mr. Frist wants to change the rules of the Senate to make it harder or impossible for minority party members to block or delay action — particularly on judicial nominees — through filibusters, essentially a procedure that involves little more than talking a bill to death.

Mr. Frist believes such a change is necessary in order to end what he recently described as the “tyranny of the minority,” even if it involves what some call the “nuclear option” of having the presiding officer of the Senate, in this case Vice President Dick Cheney, ruling filibusters unconstitutional in matters involving judicial nominations.

Rule changes in Congress throughout its history gradually have limited the power of the minority, leaving the filibuster in the Senate as one of the last tools the minority has in the legislative arena. Without it, the Senate will more closely resemble the House, where strong-armed political tactics have long been employed.

For years, the Senate has been growing more like the House “with two modes of ideologies and almost no center,” said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. The changes being pushed by Mr. Frist are likely to do little to restore the center.

Indeed, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, conference chairman of Senate Republicans, said he intends to push a “center-right” political agenda, with or without the Democrats. Republicans hold 55 of the 100 Senate seats.

“Yes, it will be toward the right,” he has said, “but that’s the direction the country wants to move.”

He added: “After 10 years of Republican control in the House and nearly 10 years in the Senate, it’s time for Democrats to realize they are not in the majority anymore. They’re not running Washington anymore.”

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