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Senate power struggle: Should one man's decision transform the nation?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 11, 2001

Senator Arlen Specter

There is an old adage that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Thus it is that I can support a measure advanced by, of all people, Senator Arlen Specter, the liberal Republican from Pennysylvania.

Senator Specter has introduced a rule, which if adopted by the Senate, would prevent any one Senator who changes parties in the middle of a Congressional session from causing the parties to shift control until the next election.

Theoretically, the nation as a whole determines who controls the Congress of the United States. In the 50-50 Senate, by electing a Republican Vice President, the people chose a Republican Senate. Granted it wasn't by much, but they did so. They elected Jim Jeffords as a Republican in the process. Specter reasons that while Jeffords may have changed his mind about being a Republican, the voters who elected him presumably did not change their minds, or at least were given no say in the process. Thus the decision of one man to change parties should not end up having had such a profound effect on the organization of the U.S. Senate. Back when President Eisenhower was first elected, Republicans faced a similar situation. They controlled the U.S. Senate by a single vote and then Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon declared himself an Independent. He disagreed with President Eisenhower's decision to share offshore oil revenues with the states. Mindful that it was Republicans who had elected him to the Senate, however, he continued to caucus with the Republicans, thus keeping them in the majority. It was only after the next election that he switched parties, but then it didn't matter. The Democrats took a one-vote lead in the Senate on their own. During that 82nd Congress, there were nine deaths, virtually all of them Republicans. Both of Nebraska's Republican Senators died one after the other, for example. The Democrats, to their credit, did not ask the Republicans to step down every time one of these deaths occurred and the Democrats had a temporary majority.

Maybe Tom Daschle would be wise to take up Senator Specter's resolution and to pass it. The resolution goes beyond just a single Senator changing parties, but spells out rules for the orderly conduct of party control for an entire Congress. After all, it could well be that Senator Toricelli would be indicted in the near future and there would be pressure on him to resign. If there is still a Republican Governor in New Jersey, then Toricelli's replacement would be a Republican, this tipping the balance back to where it was before Jeffords switched. There are rumors that still another Democratic Senator is in deep legal trouble and could be indicted. But then that could be offset by the departure at anytime of 98-year-old Senator Strom Thurmond who no longer is President Pro Tem of the Senate and who thus loses his automobile and driver, something which could hasten his demise.

Senator Specter is quite correct to want to build some stability into the process. Once voters collectively have chosen which party they want to govern the Senate for the nation, no single Senator should be permitted to undo that mandate. It would be unconstitutional, no doubt, to tell that Senator he can't change parties. That he should be welcome to do. But to tell him that in changing parties he may not overthrow who controls the Senate it seems to be reasonable. That can be determined at the next election.

One other change might be considered as well. When Phil Gramm switched parties, he resigned his seat as a Democrat and ran and was elected in a special election as a Republican. Senator Tom Daschle suggested this would be appropriate for Ben Nighthorse Campbell when he switched parties in Colorado. Maybe that isn't a bad idea after all. Why not put the matter to the test with the voters. Let us see how many Vermonters approve of what Jim Jeffords did here. We are being told that support for him is overwhelming, but there is only one way to find that out. If Jeffords resigned and turned around and ran again in a special election as an Independent, then we would know for sure. I wouldn't mind a rule change that would make that a requirement as well. It seems to me that the people ought to have something to say about what these Senators do when their decisions, such as what Jeffords did, will effect all of us for years and years to come. But then, they only speak about doing things in the name of the people. When it comes to actually doing so they are nowhere to be found.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • The President of the Senate by Bruce Walker (June 4, 2001)
    No matter who the whips and leaders are in the Senate, the presidency of the Senate never changes. Who's the president of the Senate? Why Dick Cheney of course. Bruce Walker writes that Cheney could play a very interesting role
  • Jeffords out of GOP by W. James Antle III (May 28, 2001)
    W. James Antle III is a little tired of hearing from the press that Jim Jeffords' decision was one of conscience
  • Senator Jeffords did us a favor by Charles Bloomer (May 28, 2001)
    Forget the Republican Party, writes Charles Bloomer, Jim Jeffords may have actually done America a big favor

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