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Senate Republicans: Do they have the guts to force Democrat filibusters?

By Margo Carlisle
web posted November 18, 2002

Republicans are today appropriately applauding President Bush for his remarkable "expenditure of political capital" in pursuit of the congressional victories needed to provide legislative support for his policies. While public understanding of that truism is unimportant as long as the White House understands it, another, more apropos truth is widely misunderstood.

The political capital myth is just that, a myth. It is impossible for political capital to be "expended" (if expended means decreased or depleted) any more than can a supply of courage, love, or power be diminished by use. In Washington especially, power applied is power augmented. Power, or to go back to current terms, "political capital", which goes unused, dwindles and evaporates. Power unused is power forgotten.

So much for the first, a pre-election misunderstanding.

The second is a post-election, worrisome mistake. Americans seem to think, now that the President has a majority in both houses of Congress, that he has no excuse for failing to achieve his objectives. Beyond homeland security, the budget, tax cuts, and the whole agenda will be able to sail through Congress.

Not so.

A simple majority in the House of Representatives does indeed guarantee passage of the party in power's program, but only in that body. The Senate is different. A majority there assures certain things and leaves others undetermined. One can count on, for example, the Judiciary Committee, under the chairmanship of Orrin Hatch (R-UT), to report out any judges sent up by the administration.

This indeed represents a sea change from the days of leadership by Tom Daschle (D-SD), who forbade committees to report any nominations or legislation not specifically requested by the Democrat majority; i.e. Tom Daschle. This is because he feared Democrat cooperation with Republicans on a number of issues.

Daschle was the real reason for the stalemate in the Senate. So what has changed? Next year the Committees under their Republican chairmen, will be able to report, that is, send to the Senate floor, any nominations it chooses and next year's majority leader, Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), can schedule such nominations for a vote. It also means that the Senate can schedule debate on any measure sent over by the House of Representatives.

Floor debate is thereby ensured, but passage is not. In the Senate, an arcane requirement called Rule XXII, means that if a measure is filibustered, sixty votes are required to shut off debate and vote the matter up or down. Therefore, a Democrat minority will still be able to stop any legislation or nominee for which they can muster forty-one votes, a number not difficult for a party known for its discipline and one which has forty nine members from which to seek votes.

So filibusters then, again, become the issue. Historically there have been two ways to filibuster. In the old days, Senators strapped on a catheter and prepared for twenty-four hours of talking, until someone collapsed. Yes, it tested physical endurance, but it certainly focused the country's attention on the measure in question. The recent practice could be called the "assumed filibuster." One needed only to announce opposition to specific legislation and claim forty votes.

Next year, Senate Democrats will still have the numbers to stop any legislation, or nomination, they choose to filibuster. But Republicans have the choice of making it easy or making it difficult, of helping the Democrats hide their filibuster or of exposing it. A real, old fashioned, all night, talkathon is impossible to conduct inconspicuously. But Republicans will have to do more than announce that a given measure is under filibuster. They will have to force the event.

This may mean keeping the Senate in all night, or all of several nights.

In the old days of Democratic preeminence, it was easy. Then-Majority leader, Sen Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), enjoyed legislative action more than anything else in life. Trent Lott, prefers to be home for dinner. This is a good thing. We have just seen a senator go down to defeat for ignoring the family values which elected him. But surely that fine patriot, Tricia Lott, would give up an evening or two with her husband in order to make clear how vigorously he is serving the nation.

The other necessity is for the President, this determined and politically savvy leader, to announce over and over that he could pass, say the tax bill, if only three or six or nine Democrats could join him. If they refuse, Karl Rove could threaten to send Ralph Reed to their states in two years.

Margo Carlisle was director of the Senate Steering Committee, director of the Senate GOP Conference, chief of staff to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and an Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration.

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