A Do-Nothing Congress?
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KWAME HOLMAN: On any given day, groups of citizens troop to the U.S. Capitol to petition Congress for action on any number of issues. One day last month, it was the National Council of Senior Citizens, demanding federal help for seniors who can’t afford their prescription drugs.
Affordable prescription drugs
BERT SEIDMAN: We pay more for prescription drugs in this country than anywhere else in the world, and the people who pay the most– and it doesn’t matter whether they are low-income or moderate income– the people who pay the most are the seniors who are not under any kind of drug plan.
KWAME HOLMAN: The seniors, most from Baltimore and Philadelphia, got a warm, personal welcome from Capitol Hill’s two top democrats, house minority leader Dick Gephardt and his Senate counterpart Tom Daschle.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: We’re here because more than anything else in this session of Congress, we want this Congress to pass a meaningful prescription drug benefit bill.
KWAME HOLMAN: Congressional Republicans say they, too, want to help seniors, and have set aside $40 billion in their budget plan to provide the lowest-income seniors with help in paying their drug bills.
REP. DICK ARMEY: We can get access to prescription drugs available to all seniors with subsidies to the low-income seniors, and with stop-loss caps on the high ones, so that nobody would have their life’s fortune destroyed by the high cost of prescription drugs.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gephardt complains the Republican plan is too limited.
REP. DICK GEPHARDT: We want it to apply to everybody. We want it to be a substantial benefit through Medicare. We don’t want to just ask insurance companies to try to cover this.
KWAME HOLMAN: Whether Congress will act on a federal prescription drug benefit is likely to be determined by the shifting fortunes of election-year politics. The same holds true for other major bills that enjoy broad support in Congress. And with major political party conventions coming in August and members’ need to go home and campaign for reelection, little time remains for Congress to get much done.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: When we return from the memorial day recess, we have 12 working weeks left before adjournment.
KWAME HOLMAN: Idaho Republican Larry Craig, chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, says the shortened session has forced this Congress to be less ambitious.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: While there were important issues for all of us, certainly education, a balanced budget, and strengthening and maintaining Social Security were high on our agenda. We knew the timing in getting our work done and closing this place down by late September was every bit as important to all of our colleagues.
KWAME HOLMAN: Minority Leader Daschle, however, says republicans intentionally have avoided important issues.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: They’ve all gone unattended, in large measure because we’re not in session, in measure because the Republicans don’t want to take on the tough issues, and in large measure because they don’t have those as their priority.
KWAME HOLMAN: So of the major legislative issues that remain, how many is Congress likely to act on before it adjourns? Managed care reform was approved by the house back in October, and by the Senate a week later, but without the House provision granting patients an expanded right to sue their HMO’s. The two bodies still are trying to work out their differences in a Conference Committee.
REP. DICK ARMEY: Well, the question you have over the whole question over the right to sue is the Republicans take the point of view that you look at the family, you look at the patient, and you address most immediately and most definitively their right to a review. Our problem is the Democrats want to put the right to sue up ahead of the right to review. And we think that’s being less than fully responsive to the most immediate worries of the family when they have somebody in intensive care in the hospital. So what we see here is just really a contest of priorities.
REP. DICK GEPHARDT: We’re willing to vote for anything that makes sense. We’re not willing to vote for something that doesn’t get the job done, that isn’t effective.
KWAME HOLMAN: A provision requiring a three-day waiting period for background checks on those who buy guns at gun shows was approved by the Senate more than a year ago, but the house rejected it. The issue has tied up a juvenile crime bill which also sits dormant in a Conference Committee.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Juvenile justice was a bill that spent several years being worked out, and it is a very comprehensive bill to help with juvenile crime in this nation. And tragically enough, all of this work on juvenile justice disappeared under this very loud, bright cloud of an effort of gun control.
SEN. DICK GEPHARDT: Sure, we want to get safety locks. They can put a safety lock, child safety lock bill on the floor alone. It would pass in ten minutes. We could get that out tomorrow. But we don’t want to do that, because there’s a lot of proponents of that legislation on both sides of the aisle. We don’t want to just use that as a way of killing an effective end of the gun show loophole.
KWAME HOLMAN: The whole bill could go down over this deadlock?
REP. DICK ARMEY: There’s clearly a will. I mean, if you talk to the American people, you’ll see their… first and foremost their worries for their children come out. We saw that when we had the Million Mom March. They came here and said, “guys, you’re big shots in Washington, get over yourselves and get over your politics and get this law done so we can make our children safe.”
KWAME HOLMAN: Why not do that and leave the gun show for next year?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, that may ultimately be what happens. I’m not prepared to say it’s all or nothing. We’ve got to be able to deal effectively with the issues we can agree to and go on.
KWAME HOLMAN: The House approved the Democrats’ call to increase the minimum wage, but only after Republicans attached it to a series of business tax breaks. The Senate has yet to move on either item.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: We will not leave here if we haven’t resolved the minimum wage issue. We will not take up other matters at some point, this session, unless we’ve dealt with minimum wage. We are adamant. We are determined. We’re going to get this done one way or the other.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gephardt isn’t as convinced.
REP. DICK GEPHARDT: Well, we’re not going to vote for a minimum wage increase, even though we very much are for that, if the price is attaching a whole bunch of tax cuts primarily for the wealthy, which will erode our ability to pay down back debt and save social security and Medicare.
KWAME HOLMAN: The House also approved marriage penalty tax relief in February, but Senate democrats, prevented from offering non- germane amendments to the bill, are holding it up.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Clearly that’s the only way that we can address our agenda, is through the amendment process– forcing votes where we can, but making sure that people know we’re fighting for the things we really believe in.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Sometimes in these kinds of years, where the opposition feels it more important to make a political statement than a substantive policy change, you can only go so far in debating them before you decide that you can’t get there.
Tension on the Hill
KWAME HOLMAN: Tensions have been simmering, particularly in the Senate, over the issue of gun control. They finally reached full boil just before the Memorial Day Weekend.
SPOKESMAN: The regular order has been called for. A Senator may object or not object.
SPOKESMAN: I reserve the right to object.
SPOKESMAN: The Senator has no right to reserve…
SPOKESMAN: I object.
SPOKESMAN: I object.
SPOKESMAN: I object.
SPOKESMAN: An objection is heard.
SPOKESMAN: I object.
SPOKESMAN: Mr. President…
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats, using the momentum of the Million Mom March, tried to force Senators to go on record for or against stronger gun control measures. Even though the vote was purely symbolic, Majority Leader Lott blocked the effort, angering Democrats.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Feelings on this side, the inability to debate issues we think are important, whether they be gun control or edge, are reaching the boiling point. And I fear that if we are throttled any further, that the whole order and comity of this body will break down.
KWAME HOLMAN: Lott took personal offense to the democrats’ response.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I’m getting real tired of people questioning my commitment to the Senate and to the opportunity for debates, and I’m trying to be a rules committee of one. I tell you, what I am trying to do is find a way for the Senate to do its work. These charges that are leveled against me are nonsense.
KWAME HOLMAN: Lott went on to speak for ten minutes. Senator Daschle then took his turn on the floor.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: It is outrageous, outrageous. How many more times do we have to limit ourselves to debate on the Senate floor, and how many other ways are we going to limit debate and expression and gag United States Senators? That is wrong. That is absolutely the wrong way to run the Senate. We hear a lot about cooperation, but I am telling you, there will not be cooperation unless we understand that the minority has to have its rights, too. Those rights have to be respected. But I am telling you, we have drawn the line. We are not going to be conducting business as we have in the last several months. That is over. That is behind us. We can do it the Senate way, or we are not going to do it at all.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: We can just draw the line and, you know, we cannot get any work done. We can just not have cooperation if that is the way they want it to be. But it extends across the board. I don’t think that is the way to proceed. I am not going to be threatened and intimidated by the minority in trying to get our work done. If you want to shut down everything, then everybody loses in that process.
Surviving the 106th Congress
NORM ORNSTEIN: The relations between the majority leader and the minority leader in the Senate have frayed beyond anything I can remember in the last 30 years.
KWAME HOLMAN: Congress watcher Norm Ornstein:
NORM ORNSTEIN: Daschle and Lott are grownups. They’re going to use their political power and play hardball when necessary. But where it’s in their common interests to get something done, they’ll do it, too. But you can expect an awful lot of brinkmanship in the Senate.
KWAME HOLMAN: The next test of civility in the Senate could come during the debate and vote on legislation granting permanent normalized trade relations with china. And in addition, there is some work that must be done.
SPOKESMAN: We have at least 12 appropriations bills to finish. We have to do those to make our government run and function.
KWAME HOLMAN: But even there, Daschle has threatened a slowdown by forcing the Senate to follow tradition and wait for the House to approve its version of each of the 13 spending bills before the Senate acts.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: We’ll have to take them one step at a time and try to make our best judgment as to what makes the most sense with each bill and each week.
NORM ORNSTEIN: Democrats in Congress at one level would like to push these issues to the max and then have it all fall apart, especially if it’s disagreement among Republicans. Republicans want a record of accomplishment, but at another level, these are issues that are mostly pushed by Democrats, and they want things done in areas they care about. And in some of these areas, there is great Republican unease, and if they could have their druthers, they’d be able to neutralize the issue without having a policy action that deep down many of them believe would really be unwise.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, those watching with interest from the sidelines will have the opportunity to register their opinions on November 7, election day.
CROWD: In November, in November, in November!