Symbolism in fold-up cots: Senate isn't asleep

Daschle readies Democrats to work overtime – and to differ with a popular 'wartime' president.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Senate majority leader Tom Daschle is warning colleagues to prepare for some long nights this week. To make the point, he ordered a dozen cots wheeled into the Capitol – and told photographers where to be to catch the shot.

No one leaves for recess until the first overhaul of campaign-finance reform in a generation clears the Senate and heads to President Bush's desk for an expected signature, he says. The cots mean that opponents hoping to use Senate rules to delay passage of this bill will have to do it around the clock.

There's more at stake in this fight than limits on political donations, which Mr. Bush early on opposed. It's part of a larger bid to demonstrate that the Senate – despite razor-thin margins and a Democratic caucus that is divided on many issues – can be an effective check on a war-empowered White House.

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Ever since the attacks on Sept. 11, Senate Democrats have played down differences with President Bush over conduct of the war on terrorism. There would be "no daylight" between the White House and Congress on this war, said leaders on both sides.

Late last month, Mr. Daschle opened up lots of daylight by publicly questioning the expansion of the war and its prospects for success. After a firestorm of criticism from Republicans, he pushed through a resolution declaring that the Senate "stands united with the president" on the war.

Now, however, clashes between the White House and the Senate are shaping up on a number of fronts, especially oversight of the war on terrorism at home, judicial appointments, and the budget.

One of the biggest clashes is whether Homeland Security director Tom Ridge will be compelled to testify before Senate committees. As an adviser to Mr. Bush (not a Cabinet official), Mr. Ridge is not required to appear, White House officials say.

But since last week, Mr. Daschle has been quietly testing support within his caucus and among some Republicans to subpoena Mr. Ridge. GOP Sens. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Richard Shelby of Alabama also say Ridge has an obligation to appear.

"We aren't comfortable coercing somebody to speak, but when you have somebody this important and when you have the issue as critical as it is for all of this country at stake, there shouldn't be any question about his willingness to come before the committees," Daschle said.

At the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee handed Bush his first defeat on a judicial nomination, when it rejected the nomination of Judge Charles Pickering to the US Circuit Court of Appeals on a straight party-line vote last week. The move sends a warning that Senate Democrats intend to advise the president, as well as consent, on future judicial nominations, especially to the Supreme Court.

In response, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott blocked a new bid from the Judiciary Committee to step up its oversight of the war on terrorism. The committee had sought money to evaluate US intelligence operations after the 9/11 attacks.

SUSTAINED high approval ratings for President Bush makes Democratic efforts to define distinctive positions on issues like homeland defense perilous. Stung by GOP charges that he has been an "obstructionist" in a time of war, Daschle is stepping up efforts to demonstrate bipartisan support before launching future assaults on White House positions.

One of his biggest challenges will be managing this year's budget process, which promises to be especially difficult when both the House and Senate are at stake in fall elections. Already, Senate Democrats are deeply divided between those who favor fiscal restraint and those on the liberal wing of the party who think it is critical to push for more spending on social programs for the 2003 fiscal year.

"It's going to be hard, because our fiscal condition has dramatically deteriorated," says Senate Budget Committee chair Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota.

While Daschle opposed President Bush's 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut, he has not called for its repeal. With 12 members of his own caucus voting with Republicans for the tax cut, a rollback isn't politically feasible. But he is using all the tools at his disposal to define a Democratic alternative, including scheduling all-night sessions or yanking the energy bill out of the Energy Committee when it appeared poised to include drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – a top White House priority. The drilling initiative now looks likely to fail.

"He's used the powers he has and done relatively well keeping the party together. But that doesn't mean he can keep a coalition together on other issues, like the budget," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University here.

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