WASHINGTON — The man who succeeds Bob Dole as Senate majority leader will help lead the nation into the next millennium. But his most immediate challenge may be to keep the job from driving him bananas.
Although the majority leader controls the legislative calendar, Senate rules provide ample ways for the minority party, or even a single malcontent, to sabotage the leader's agenda.
Next week, after Mr. Dole resigns to seek the presidency full-time, Senate Republicans will decide which Mississippian, Thad Cochran or Trent Lott, will assume his title. Both men are well-liked and have reputations for patience and persuasiveness.
That's a good thing. The Senate has become more individualistic in recent years, observers say, and changes in the rules continue to chip away at the majority leader's power.
"The immutable characteristics of the Senate are such that leaders have to adjust to the Senate more than the Senate adjusts to the temperament of its leaders," says one longtime Senate official. "The leader has to be a very adept political negotiator."
Much of the Senate's sluggish nature can be attributed to two fundamental rules. First is the filibuster. Any senator who objects to a piece of legislation on the floor has the right to simply refuse to stop talking about it.
It used to be that filibustering senators would remain on the floor yakking for hours, sometimes reading books aloud. But in recent years, as the number of filibusters has increased, the mere threat of one now prompts the majority leader to schedule a cloture vote to end debate. Unless the leader cobbles together 60 votes against the filibuster, the bill is defeated.
Wanted: Parliamentary acrobat
The second rule that can be an annoyance to a majority leader allows senators to offer amendments to bills that cover unrelated, or "non-germane," issues. During last month's debate about paying the legal debts of dismissed employees of the White House travel office, for example, Democrats introduced several amendments to raise the minimum wage. While a majority leader can use parliamentary acrobatics to keep such amendments from being considered, as Dole did, a determined opposition by the minority can induce gridlock.
The only way a majority leader can prevent these intrusions is to draft a unanimous consent (UC) agreement before bringing a bill to the floor. These accords, hammered out through consultations with the minority leadership, determine how long debate will continue and what amendments will be presented.
During his tenure as majority leader, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D) made a point of drafting a comprehensive UC for every piece of legislation. But under the leaderships of Sens. George Mitchell (D) of Maine and Dole, the Senate became more confrontational - and more challenging to get senators to sign off on UCs. Thus, the number of filibusters increased.
As a result, says Senate parliamentarian Bob Dove, the minority leader has far more control over a bill's fate.
Other trends have produced a similar decentralization of power. One is the proliferation of reconciliation bills. These special bills, which only cover sensitive budget items such as entitlements, cannot be filibustered. In years past, only one reconciliation bill was introduced each year. But this year Republicans have proposed using three of them, an action that led minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota to joke that if the Democrats reclaim control of the Senate next year, they might wrap every piece of legislation into reconciliation bills and thus eliminate all filibusters.
Mr. Dove says reconciliation bills, in effect, take power from the majority leader and give it to the Budget Committee, which is charged with drafting them.
A few perks come with the post
Yet the majority leader has some influence over committee assignments, and he is the only person who can bring bills to the floor. He also enjoys the "priority of recognition," meaning that whenever he comes to the floor, he has the right to speak next - a privilege that allows him to perform a variety of parliamentary high jinks.
In the end, Dove says, a majority leader's power depends largely on his personal skills. "You have to work with your own party, with the minority leader, and the people on the other side," he says. "And there are always mavericks."