Democrats frustrated about being excluded from final negotiations on energy and Medicare legislation are striking back by blocking less prominent bills and accusing the GOP of abusing its majority power.
Several Senate Democrats said Wednesday that their votes to block a GOP bill (S 1751) to overhaul rules for class action lawsuits was, in part, a protest against the way Republican leaders are conducting conference committees on energy and Medicare.
Similarly, Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., has cited the conferences as one reason Democrats have been unwilling to let a charitable giving bill (HR 7) pass the Senate by unanimous consent and move on to a House-Senate conference.
While there has been little risk in blocking action on these comparatively low-profile bills, the question is whether Democrats will escalate the fight to the point of blocking the final energy and Medicare bills. Doing so would allow the Republicans to paint them as obstructionists on issues of major importance to both parties as they head into an election year.
Republicans, meanwhile, defended their handling of negotiations, saying too many voices — particularly those of lawmakers who do not support their policy goals — would yield cacophony, not compromise.
"You want to try to negotiate agreements with people who are going to vote for it and negotiate in good faith," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "You need to be able to reach agreement, and you can't have 6,000 people negotiating."
In both the cases of Medicare (HR 1) and energy (HR 6), the Republicans have been largely negotiating without the participation of Democrats, who have been complaining for weeks about the process. But in recent days the conflict has escalated.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Oct. 17 that excluding Democrats is an "abuse of process" and a "degradation of the institution" that merits attention. "What they want to do is to reach all these agreements and dictate to us what the final decisions would be in the conference, and that's a violation of the trust that we must have in working together, but also a tremendous undermining of the institution itself," Daschle said.
His House counterpart, Nancy Pelosi of California, said in her weekly briefing with reporters Oct. 21 that "Republicans have turned everything on its ear. The regular order has gone by the by." And House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland for the second time in five days used his end-of-the-week colloquy with Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to highlight concerns about Democrats being excluded from conference negotiations.
Hoyer specifically mentioned the prescription drug bill, the Labor-HHS appropriations measure (HR 2660) and the energy bill, asking that the final product of the latter be delivered to Democrats at least two days in advance of a vote.
On Wednesday, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, one of the Democrats that Republicans were trying to win over on the class action bill, said even if that legislation were modified to her liking before it passed the Senate, she had no confidence that a final bill would be acceptable.
Even if changes were made to the bill on the Senate floor, "the issue is then they're stripped out in conference [and] Democrats aren't allowed in the conference," she said.
Republicans Say Deals Must Be Struck
Republicans, under pressure to complete energy and Medicare bills because they control both chambers of Congress and the White House, say most Democrats would rather obstruct the process than contribute to the final product. They say they are willing to include anyone whose presence they think would be constructive, and point to the participation of a pair of Senate Democrats, Max Baucus of Montana and John B. Breaux of Louisiana, in Medicare negotiations.
Republicans also say they are not doing things much differently than Democrats did when they were in charge.
"Democrats went through many times of coming to agreement with their colleagues without Republicans being in the room," said Ohio Rep. John A. Boehner, chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. "So this is something of a false issue."
Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., the chairman of the energy conference, said no one should assume that final negotiations follow a pattern. "Conference committees' operations are all different," he said. "Very few rules."
On that bill, however, Democratic complaints appear to have had some impact. Domenici has promised that Democrats will have a copy of the bill 48 hours before a final formal conference meeting. The current plan is for that final meeting to occur on Oct. 28.
Source: CQ Today
Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill.
© 2003 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved