Time for Congress to rewrite its rules, senator says

Sen. William S. Cohen was without the usual spring in his step when he faced reporters over breakfast last week. It was only a few hours after leaving the Senate floor. He'd had only ''three hours sleep,'' he said wearily.

Soon the Maine Republican was into a castigation of the 12-day Jesse Helms-led filibuster against the nickel-a-gallon tax increase - together with a very negative attitude about the special session in general. Cohen reflected on the growing feeling among many of his colleagues that congressional procedures must be improved. And he also assessed where the President stands in the wake of this session.

Could you give us an evaluation of this special session?

It was not worthwhile. It was entirely predictable and probably inevitable that we would engage in what you witnessed. The legislative process is not normally very neat. . . . But this one reminded me of sort of a casserole. I think we did harm to ourselves, to the institution, in several ways. What struck me was the misuse of the filibuster.

I recall that during the impeachment proceedings a few years ago I read a quote from a high-court justice who said that this sort of impeachment ought to be kept in a temple and withdrawn only on great occasions. And that had some meaning to me at that time. (Cohen was a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the historic Nixon impeachment inquiry and was elected to the Senate in 1978).

And it seems to me that the same sort of principle applies to filibusters. It's being withdrawn on too many occasions.

So what we have done is to trivialize the process itself. And what we need to do is to change the rules when we go back into session next year and eliminate, as much as we can, post-cloture debate.

How does the President come out in this: pluses and minuses?

Well, to the extent that the job measure was not included, that was a presidential success. However, some of us feel that a measure, even if only token, dealing with unemployment would have been desirable.

Obviously, he lost on the MX, in terms of what he wanted. Whether it is critical not remains to be seen.

But he still got a lot for defense, didn't he?

He got most of what he was after, that's right.

Hasn't he pretty much, in two years time, put in place the readjustments he urged during the campaign?

Indeed, he has. He also has in place what appears to be permanent deficits, ranging anywhere from $150 billion to $250 billion. And I frankly don't see any way of reducing that in the foreseeable future to any level that would even approach a balanced budget.

Do you see government by veto for the next two years?

I think we can run that prospect. There is a very real possibility of stalemate and vetoes. On the other hand I have seen in recent weeks some effort on the part of the President to moderate his positions and to compromise, particularly with the MX.

I am of the opinion that you cannot govern this country by polarizing it. You only govern it by developing a consensus. And if the President does not develop a consensus in Congress or the country we will see two years of stalemate.

How is this president doing at midterm?

I think he's doing well. I think he has done more to restore respect for the office than we have seen in quite a few years. Overall, he still is doing a good job.

What kind of a grade would you give him, overall?

I'd give him anywhere from a B to a C plus.

What are the negatives - beyond the deficit?

The President has lost the minority population he has been trying to attract: He lost the black vote; he lost a good many of the Jewish population; he lost many of the women - all of the groups that traditionally have made up the Democratic majority that the President had made some inroads into in 1980.

What got done in the special session - was it worth the while?

Well, to the extent that you had to keep the government running, obviously passing the continuing resolution was worthwhile, even though I disagreed with some of the provisions of it. In hindsight I now think the President and the majority leader should have kept us in session right up to the day of the election and avoided this lame-duck session.

Did civility prevail in the Senate during those waning days of this special session?

For the most part tempers were kept, at least publicly, pretty well under control.

But privately not so?

Privately not so. There was a good deal of bitterness, as a matter of fact.

Against what?

Against the process that compelled us to stay in night after night. And that's not a good way to legislate. And we became frustrated with it, and frustrated in the sense that the process was being misused or abused. As I said early, I think the filibuster should be reserved for great moral issues, very significant policy issues. . . . I've always believed that freedom of speech under the First Amendment doesn't mean you have the right to strangle democracy with a single set of vocal chords.

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