Escalating a partisan dispute, Senate Republicans said Tuesday they are weighing procedural tactics to override Democratic efforts to prevent two bills from advancing to House-Senate conferences.
Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said Tuesday that if he could not reach agreement with Democratic leaders to proceed to conference on the "Healthy Forests" Act (HR 1904), he would urge Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to file a motion to shut off debate on a motion to appoint conferees to negotiate the final legislation.
If that cloture motion succeeds, Republicans may seek to employ the same tactic to free up action on a bill that would expand tax breaks for charitable donations (HR 7), according to Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who chairs the GOP Conference.
Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said his boss would "totally support" Cochran in his bid to advance the bill to conference committee.
Weighing the Risks
If they do proceed to a cloture motion, Republicans would be hard-pressed to persuade enough Democrats to buck their party leadership and hand the GOP the nine votes they would need to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to invoke cloture.
Such a move would also take up precious floor time as Republicans struggle to pass the remaining appropriations bills and energy (HR 6) and Medicare legislation (HR 1) before the target adjournment date of Nov. 21.
But even if they fail to force conference committee action, Republicans who support the strategy said requiring Democrats to cast a vote will "shine a light" on their obstructionist tactics.
Democrats "are going to have to show that they're not going to allow us to move to a normal course of business," Santorum said. "We're going to start having votes."
Democrats have objected to motions to appoint conferees to two bills that have passed both chambers by wide margins — the Healthy Forests Act and the Charitable Giving Act.
Instead, they have sought an agreement — unsuccessfully — to send the Senate-passed versions of the bill back to the House to be amended before being returned to the Senate.
Democrats have pursued this strategy in retaliation for being shut out of conferences on legislation that would establish new energy policies and overhaul the Medicare system.
Republicans have permitted participation by two of the seven Democratic conferees on the Medicare legislation. No Democrats have been involved in the energy conference.
Democrats have no intention of stopping with those two bills, according to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Daschle told reporters during a Tuesday news conference that Democrats would "pick and choose" additional conference committees to block until they win full participation. "We're going to insist that we be full partners or we're not going to have a conference at all," he said.
Daschle said Tuesday he would not object to conference committee consideration of a bill to overhaul the Fair Credit Reporting Act (S 1753), which the Senate is expected to pass Wednesday.
He also said Democrats have not objected to conferences on appropriations bills because they are satisfied with appropriators' efforts to include Democrats.
House Democrats Also Seething
House Democrats have also been incensed about their exclusion from conference negotiations.
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., wrote a letter Tuesday to Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, asking for a seat at the negotiating table when conference reports are being written.
Hoyer also asked DeLay to give all members at least three days to review conference reports and other legislation before they hit the House floor.
The practice of excluding Democrats from conference negotiations "offends our democratic tradition, demeans this institution and silences the elected representatives of 130 million Americans," Hoyer wrote.
DeLay, who had not seen Hoyer's letter, said that "on major bills, like the Medicare bill, it does make sense to make sure that members have enough time to look at it, but that's on a case-by-case basis."
When asked whether he was concerned about the Democratic clamor over process, he flatly replied: "No."