- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Few outside of Congress recognize the importance of leadership positions, personalities and powers in advancing a legislative agenda. Skilled leaders in both the House and Senate make the difference between success and gridlock in the dance of legislation. Yet unlike the House, where a unified majority — even a narrow one — can efficiently move the lawmaking process forward, the Senate is a different breed of cat.

Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee was fond of metaphorically describing leading the upper body as akin to “herding cats.” Given the rules and precedents of the Senate, a legislative leader’s arsenal of weapons to compel party unity is limited to nonexistent.

But next year fostering party unity among Republicans will be more critical than anytime in recent history, given President Bush’s re-election and the expansion of GOP majorities in the House and Senate. “There may have been some questions about who was in charge before the last election because of the closely divided Senate,” a Democratic leadership aide told me. “But now its going to be a lot more clear that Republicans are in charge of everything,” he said. Blaming the Democrats for a failed legislative agenda may no longer be a viable option.

New obligations accompany this new reality: The responsibility to produce. And toward that end, Republicans took an important step last week to do just that by enhancing the power of the Senate Majority Leader position. It’s a modest move, but could help Republicans promote better party unity and assist the Senate leader in his “cat herding” endeavors to move the president’s agenda next year.

Last week’s Republican rules change weakens the old seniority system, providing Majority Leader Bill Frist with new powers to appoint at least half of the vacancies on the 13 most important and sought after committees, such as Finance, Appropriations and Foreign Relations. Before the rules change Republicans filled these openings purely based on seniority — the most senior member would get the first shot at a vacancy. Now, by contrast, if four vacancies exist, the leader selects two and the other two are based on seniority. If three vacancies exist, the leader picks two of the three. And if only one exists, the leader fills it with his choice.

This is a new process for the Republicans, allowing the leader to fill key committee slots based on factors such as party loyalty, substantive background, regional factors or political imperatives — not just seniority.

The rules change is the handiwork of a task force convened this summer by Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Mr. Santorum worked with seven of his colleagues to enhance the powers of the Senate Republican leader and modify those powers to reflect the way the Democrats have operated for many years. The ultimate plan adopted last week was developed by members of Mr. Santorum’s task force, including Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Trent Lott of Mississippi and Jim Talent of Missouri.

Democrats in the Senate take a different approach to filling vacancies, using a variety of variables such as regional balance, party loyalty, policy views and occupational background. The Senate Democratic Leader, now Harry Reid of Nevada, appoints each member of the Steering and Coordination Committee and this body makes all appointments.

The Republicans use something called the Committee on Committees, the chair of which and all members are appointed by the Republican Conference Chairman, not the Republican leader, to make key committee assignments. The Committee on Committees, until last week’s rules change, had no flexibility for major committee assignments. Senators simply got slotted into vacancies based purely on their preferences and seniority.

The rules change won’t alter the basic operational procedures of the Senate and it’s by no means a silver bullet to radically enhance the powers of the majority leader. Yet it is a step in the right direction, giving the Republican leader additional tools to install some party loyalists on all of the key committees at a time when operating as a “team” is critical to Republican success.

Given the president’s ambitious agenda, and expanded Republican margins in the House and Senate, the pressure to overcome gridlock and produce legislative results will be enormous. Because the Senate still requires 60 votes to overcome filibusters and other procedural delays, new and improved cat herding tools are welcome. Republican Senators gave Mr. Frist an important one last week.

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