Power strains GOP unity

The 108th Congress, having failed to complete its business before the election, returned for a lame-duck session. Having failed again to complete its business, it is returning again Dec. 6. Lame-Duck Two, you might call it.

You might also think this is all because of ferocious partisan strife. But partisanship has little to do with it. The trouble lies mainly within the ranks of a strengthened Republican Party.

First, an intra-Republican row over the elevation of Sen. Arlen Specter to chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Some archconservatives found him insufficiently stalwart on confirmation of judges who fail the litmus test on opposition to abortion. In the end, Senator Specter made it, but only after giving ironclad pledges not to impede the confirmation of judicial nominees who oppose abortion.

Then, intelligence reform. The bipartisan bill was blocked by Republican leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert. This despite the telephoned plea of President Bush from Air Force One while he was en route to Santiago, Chile. Behind the scenes the Pentagon opposed the bill, which would give a national intelligence director some of the budgetary authority now enjoyed by the Defense Department. The Democrats sat by and watched as Republican leaders stiffed their commander in chief. The leadership will try again in Lame-Duck Two, and members of the 9/11 commission are lobbying strenuously for a bill they call vital to national security, but which faces death in this Congress.

Then there was the long overdue $388 billion omnibus spending bill to run the government. In the dark of night, some Republican representative (or a staffer, as one theory had it) slipped in an amendment to allow committee chairs and their staffs to inspect any income-tax returns they chose - until now, an exclusive power of the IRS. It wasn't until the 3,600-page spending bill had been approved that this mischievous little provision was discovered, and it stirred up a storm of protest against this assault on civil liberties. So now Congress will come back, repeal the sneaky provision, and pass the bill again so the government can stop subsisting on stopgap resolutions.

It seems the Republicans have so much power that they hardly know what to do with it.

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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