As the Session Winds Down, Sniping Rises on Capitol Hill

For Immediate Release:

November 8, 2003

Contact:Carl Hulse

The New York Times

Congress is winding down, which is causing the partisanship to be ratcheted up.

The Senate ground to a halt on Friday in a wave of political recriminations as Democrats accused the Republican majority and the White House of treating them arrogantly and dismissively. Republicans, in turn, demanded a formal apology for a Democratic memorandum they said reeked of trying to politicize the inquiry into how intelligence was used in the buildup to the Iraq war.

The feuding pushed other business off the Senate floor and suggested that a rocky time lies ahead as lawmakers try to wrap up contentious energy, Medicare and spending legislation and adjourn by Nov. 21.

It is not unusual for tempers to flare in the final weeks of a session as lawmakers see time running out on a pet initiative or find themselves unable to stop someone else's. The bluster can be part posturing, as members of Congress try to win one last concession or prove to constituents that at least they went down fighting.

"When you get close to the end, this always happens," said a top Republican aide, who said that despite the fireworks on the floor, progress was being made on remaining bills. "We are still getting our work done."

Republicans say there is real anger behind the fracture of the intelligence panel over the the disclosure of a staff memorandum. The document said Democrats should lay the groundwork for an investigation next year to show "the misleading, if not flagrantly dishonest, methods and motives of senior administration officials who made the case for unilateral pre-emptive war."

Republicans say the tone of the memorandum cut against the normally nonpartisan grain of the panel and showed Democrats were trying to draw the chairman, Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, into a political trap. The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, said the committee would not meet again until Democrats disavowed the memorandum, identified its author and apologized to Mr. Roberts.

"The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has been harmed by a blatant partisan attack," Dr. Frist said in a floor speech quickly followed by calls from other Republicans for an apology.

Democrats countered that Republicans should investigate who, in the words of Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, "pilfered" the memorandum. Others saw the uproar as a convenient excuse for Republicans to cut short an inquiry that could put the administration in a bad light and detract attention from the real issues surrounding intelligence.

The Democrats have issues of their own, not the least of which is Dr. Frist's plan to spend 30 hours next week attacking Democratic filibusters against a few of President Bush's judicial choices. They see that as a poor use of precious remaining time.

"I've never seen such amateur leadership in the all the time I've been in Congress, 21 years," Mr. Reid said.

The unrest has been building as Democrats chafed at being cut out of House-Senate negotiations over the major bills as well as what they saw as other heavy-handed Republican tactics. Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, this week accused the Republican leadership there of practicing a "policy of exclusion."

In the Senate, Democrats have responded by holding up negotiations on forest and charitable-giving measures, drawing complaints from Republicans that Democrats are obstructing needed bills. The Democrats are also threatening to filibuster the energy bill and perhaps the Medicare measure if they find them objectionable.

Republicans say Democrats have not come to terms with the fact that they lost control of the Senate. "They don't like being in the minority," said Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania.

To the Democrats, the latest affront was the disclosure of a White House e-mail message that indicated requests from Democratic lawmakers for information about White House spending needed to be cleared through Republican chairmen. The communication from a White House official, first reported by The Washington Post, sent Democrats through the roof and prompted an amendment now pending in the Senate. It directs the White House to respond "promptly and completely to all requests by members of Congress of both parties for information about public expenditures."

Republicans said that the outrage was overblown and that the White House moved quickly to defuse the situation, saying the message was being misconstrued. A White House spokeswoman said it was not the intent of the message to "suggest that minority members cannot ask questions without the consent of the majority, and we are happy to clear that up for anyone."

Lawmakers hope they are able to put aside their disputes and pass some legislation before going home. Because as everyone on Capitol Hill knows, the real fight does not even begin until next year.