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Senate Shakeup

May 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Senator Jeffords’ decision to switch from Republican to independent will trigger wholesale changes in Senate power and organization.

For a road map of what’s lies ahead, we turn to two veteran Congress watchers. Norman Ornstein is senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. And Sarah Binder is a fellow in governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. Welcome to you both. Norm, as Kwame just reported as long as the tax bill gets done, Jeffords set June 5 as the day his switch becomes official. What happens then?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We have some elements of this set in the unique power sharing arrangement that the leaders of the Senate worked out when this tie occurred back in January. Automatically the Majority Leader’s position will switch to Tom Daschle. Automatically the committee chairs will change.

They have a lot of other things to work out however. And what will have to be done on a resolution on the Senate floor including the ratios of the committees, how many Democrats to Republicans, now they’re even, Republicans would like to keep it that way. The staff arrangements, they’re now even.

And unless and until they work them out, the numbers revert to what they were before this Congress began, which means the freshmen sit around with no assignments. Some committees have more Democrats than Republicans and vice versa.

MARGARET WARNER: And this resolution, however, is something that could be filibustered, is that right?

SARAH BINDER: It could be potentially filibustered. It has to come to a full Senate for a full vote. In reality, neither side wants a filibuster. Both sides have an incentive to get the committees up and running. More likely it will be negotiated by Daschle and Lott and they’ll move on.

MARGARET WARNER: So where are we likely, once these committee chairmanships shift, where are we likely to see a pretty visible and immediate impact right away?

SARAH BINDER: I think the biggest impact will be felt on the Judiciary Committee. We’ll see it on the fate of President Bush’s judicial nominees to fill the federal bench. Democrats under Pat Leahy, there is talk, Joe Biden could reassert seniority and take that committee, more likely Pat Leahy; Democrats are gaining incredible procedural control over the nominations.

MARGARET WARNER: And then to say Pat Leahy would take over from Orrin Hatch who has been the chairman.

SARAH BINDER: Right. On policy issues you can get around the committee, get around the leadership if need be on the floor. Not so on nominations. What Pat Leahy wants and what those committee Democrats want, that’s going to be pivotal. They’re going to slow things down, they’re going to listen to the ABA, they’re going to let Democratic Senators veto or blue slip these nominees. Leahy said – I don’t want an ideological hard core right or hard core left; they’re looking for centrist nominees.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Norm, so where are we likely then to see the Democrats with their own agenda? In other words, which committees might be the center of that kind of thing?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: In policy terms, the first place we are going to look is an education and health and a committee that is education, health, labor and pensions basically. That’s a committee that Senator Jeffords has chaired. Now he moves over to the Environment Committee and Ted Kennedy becomes chairman yet again.

And we’re going to see this actually first – I think very early on the Senate floor when a new Majority Leader Tom Daschle brings up the patients’ bill of rights that’s been negotiated with the Democratic leadership’s ascent between John McCain, Ted Kennedy and John Edwards of North Carolina. The administration is opposed to this and actually Senator Jeffords wasn’t for it either.

They will be able to bring that up. Senator Kennedy has other issues in the health arena that he will push, including doing something about the uninsured and ultimately a very different prescription drug benefit than the administration would like. We’ll see the minimum wage come up. And he will clearly push very aggressively for more funding in education, which is one of the main issues that caused Senator Jeffords to switch.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. What about back to Bush’s agenda — say his energy plan? What are the committees going to have jurisdiction over that and what are the changes?

SARAH BINDER: We’ll see a lot of action in the Energy Natural Resources Committee, Environment and Public Works Committee. The big highlight issue there is arctic drilling. That’s sure to be dead.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s look at– this is the Energy Committee. Senator Frank Murkowski has been the chairman and Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico will become the chairman.

SARAH BINDER: Murkowski from Alaska has been much more supportive of drilling and resource extraction development. Bingaman has a record on energy efficiency, renewable resources. Democrats have come out against really the tenor of the Bush plan. We are going to see the brakes put on a lot of that; a lot of the good careful scrutiny of that plan.

MARGARET WARNER: Hasn’t Bingaman even called for higher fuel standards for SUV’s and trucks?

NORMAN ORSTEIN: He has. And he will push for tax incentives there. And it will be very different. He will tilt away from offshore oil drilling and away from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife preserve towards conservation, towards alternative fuel sources and for some of the fuel standards. We’ll also see an impact of the energy bill in the Environment Committee as Sarah suggested.

It is not a huge change in the chairmanship actually. Senator Bob Smith is a conservative Republican who switched to independents and back to Republican, kept his committee but he has been a strong environmentalist. This is the prize now nor Jim Jeffords. Harry Reid is going to be the Democratic majority whip. He would have been the chair.

He has given this up to get Jeffords over. Jeffords is an ardent environmentalist. The difference here will probably comes in terms of hearings, a tilt — probably criticism of what the administration is doing in Kyoto and global warming but also an attempt to make the energy plan something that does not do away with environmental safeguards.

MARGARET WARNER: That points out one of the powers these committee chairmen has which is simply to make an issue front and center, to hold hearings to the kind of witnesses they want.

SARAH BINDER: We will see this on oversight across the committees, on armed services, the whole issue of missile defense.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about that because that’s another item on President Bush’s agenda. Getting national missile defense and also revamping of the military. Tell us about the committee shifts there.

SARAH BINDER: Clearly on missile defense, take the armed services moving from john Warner, classic pro-defense Senator to Carl Levin who is a true defense policy expert. He has been very vocal on retaining the ABM Treaty, and that’s at the heart of the missile defense. That plan is going to slow down and will be scrutinized by Levin and his committee.

NORMAN ORSTEIN: But, ironically, Margaret, Carl Levin is a military reformer and will probably be more sympathetic towards the kind of revamping to get a 21st century military that President Bush was talking about earlier that Don Rumsfeld will talk about later tonight on the show, than some of the Republicans, including now Minority Leader Trent Lott who has been very unhappy with what Rumsfeld has been doing. So he may have an ally here in an unexpected way.

MARGARET WARNER: What about on foreign relations?

SARAH BINDER: Well, see much of the ground swell change here from Helms–.

MARGARET WARNER: Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

SARAH BINDER: All the way to Joe Biden from Delaware, we call him an internationalist. He has been very vocal on issues particularly ABM and missile defense. We’re going to be revisiting Kosovo and so forth. There is going to be a lot of oversight on what the administration wants to do and where it wants to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally we get to the whole area of budget, tax, finance. Now Norm, with the budget blueprint approved and the tax cut apparently on its way to being finalized, how much of a difference will those committee shifts really need?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Starting in the finance committee which is the most significant committee for most of Bush’s priorities, he wants a second tax cut down the road. Max Baucus, the Democrat who has been cooperative with Chuck Grassley here, is going to be less cooperative about a second tax cut that includes business breaks. But this committee also has trade in its jurisdiction.

Top Bush priority — fast track trade priority to give them negotiated agreements for up and down votes in Congress. Max Baucus — much less sympathetic to that than Grassley, more concerned about lumber and wheat in Montana. He is up for reelection. And Social Security further down the road. Bush creating this commission, wanting private accounts, Chuck Grassley would have used this committee as a vehicle to try and promote those things. Baucus will probably move in exactly the opposite direction.

So we’re at the crossroads there. The Budget Committee we’ve dealt with a budget this year. It is not as significant right in the short-term, although Kent Conrad will be a vocal person using the bully pulpit of that committee to criticize the budget priorities of the President. But on Appropriations, while there is no unsubstantial difference….

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s explain. Appropriations is the committee that actually decides how the money that was in the budget resolution, how it is actually spent.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And in every specific. Here Democrats and Republicans on the committee tend to think alike. They like to spend. So we’re not going to see a dramatic difference, but what you are going to see is an attempt to reorder priorities with the now most senior Senator who will become the President pro tem, Robert Byrd moving over from Ted Stevens. He doesn’t like the President’s spending priorities. We can expect more confrontation further down the road probably August, September, October when the appropriations bills come up. So it is a big change there as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Sarah Binder, just a little perspective here – now the committee chairman’s power certainly is anything but absolute in the Senate. I mean it — can’t issues– in other words, the minority party can get its votes out there on the floor just through the amendment process.

SARAH BINDER: Right. Democrats though are gaining an agenda platform. They’re gaining a way to put their issues back on the agenda. Even if they’re going to run into stumbling blocks in conference with the house, they have a platform. It allows them to define their differences with the Republicans. That’s as important for them going into the elections in 2002.

MARGARET WARNER: Got to leave you it there. Thank you both very much.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Sure thing, Margaret.