Democrats' Control of Congress Is Not Quite Airtight

EVEN Republicans are finding one good thing in the election results: For the first time since the Carter administration, the White House and both houses of Congress will be controlled by the same party, thus apparently ending the possibility of governmental gridlock.

But not quite. The Democrats have a big enough majority to organize the Senate, but not enough to control it if the minority wants to be nasty. The sand to throw in the Senate's legislative gears comes from an increasing willingness in recent years to abuse its traditional freedom of unlimited debate.

One of the reasons for having the Senate in the first place was to protect the public interest against the passions of the moment which the Founding Fathers feared might dominate the popularly elected House from time to time. A good example of the value of unfettered debate was a bill President Truman sent to Congress in 1946 to deal with a railroad strike by drafting strikers into the Army. The House passed it in less than two hours. The Senate debated it a week and buried it.

For a long time, there was no provision in the Senate rules for ending debate. But it was understood that using debate to prevent hasty action is different from using it to prevent any action. The upper chamber first provided a way to end debate in 1917 as a reaction to a filibuster that killed President Woodrow Wilson's bill arming merchant ships. That action led to the first cloture rule, though not a very stringent one. Debate could be ended, but only by a two-thirds vote. Later the rule was changed t o allow cloture by a vote of three-fifths of all senators; but a proposal to change the rule itself still requires two-thirds. The irony is that an arrangement whose original purpose was to protect minorities came to be used to block legislation to enforce minority rights. That use was largely overcome through public pressure with the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

But then there was more irony. Senators found that repeated use - not of filibusters, but of threats of filibusters - enabled them to keep items they did not like off the Senate agenda, a perversion of unlimited debate that was never intended to apply to run-of-the-mill legislative business. But it has been used in recent years with respect to items in the defense budget, abortion, gun control, some items of foreign aid, and practically the whole gamut of Senate business.

This can be ended if the majority has 60 firm votes, but no party has had that many since the Democrats got 61 in the election of 1976. Nor will the Democrats have that many in the 103rd Congress, which meets next month.

They need to strike quickly to modify the cloture rule so that the majority can regain control of the Senate agenda. It will not be easy because it will take a two-thirds vote. But neither does it have to be a sweeping reform. It only has to go far enough to ensure that a simple majority, not an extraordinary majority, can determine what measures the Senate considers.

There is a precedent, provided by the House at the start of the Kennedy administration in 1961. The Rules Committee, which determines what the House debates and under what conditions, then had an 8-4 Democratic majority. But two of the Democrats, including the chairman, regularly sided with the Republicans, thus producing a 6-6 split - enough to block any administration bill from going to the floor.

House Speaker Sam Rayburn proposed adding two Democrats and one Republican so as to produce an 8-7 administration majority. The redoubtable speaker called in all the IOU's he had accumulated over 20 years. He won by 217-212. The Kennedy administration did not thereafter win all its battles in the House, but it did control the agenda. Can Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell do for President Clinton in 1993 what Speaker Rayburn did for President Kennedy in 1961?

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