IN the age of Newt, is the Senate for naught?
Rambunctious Republicans have seized the House, the agenda, and the limelight. Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia is pumping policy and transforming committees.
With the House grabbing most of the headlines, not even today's Senate leadership elections are registering prominently on the national consciousness.
But the hare should beware the tortoise. The ambitious House agenda, a 10-point conservative manifesto called the ``Contract With America,'' may force the Senate to be reactionary at the outset of the 104th Congress, but few in or around Capitol Hill expect that to last.
``It would be a mistake,'' says Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, ``to say the House is driving the Senate.''
Senator Cochran is heading a GOP working group that is defining a majority agenda in the next session. In an interview, he outlined the evolving Republican blueprint, which includes bills to make Congress beholden to the laws it passes, end unfunded federal mandates on states, and effect regulatory reform.
Senate Democrats also are laying plans. Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota says he intends to pursue legislation to address the economic difficulties of middle-class Americans.
How actively some of this will be carried out will depend on who emerges from today's leadership battles. Mr. Daschle is running against Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut for Senate minority leader. On the GOP side, Alan Simpson of Wyoming is going up against Trent Lott of Mississippi to be No. 2 behind Bob Dole of Kansas, the soon-to-be Senate majority leader.
Still, the Senate is not without its problems. It is a chamber out of sync with itself, where members claim a constitutional mandate to out-deliberate one another and filibusters are as common as button-down shirts.
``I have always been skeptical of the Senate as the dominant chamber of Congress,'' says Thomas Mann, political expert at the Brookings Institution here. ``It has serious problems: Old rules combine with new norms. It indulges individual whims and yet requires great consensus.''
The Senate, with its emphasis on the individual, has become a launching pad for president. Filibusters are sometimes used as reelection tactics. Personal controversies and structural mechanisms increasingly block policy. Time constraints have made senators into generalists.
But it wasn't always this way. As recently as the 1950s, the Senate was a place of specialization. Members served on only one or two committees, and few were household names. Appointments were made on the basis of seniority. Floor debate was minimal, and obstruction tactics such as the filibuster were seldomly used.
Television and a diversifying populace helped change the chamber. TV's broad exposure has boosted the power of personality. And the rising influence of interest groups has contributed to senators seeking involvement in a larger number of committees on a larger number of issues.
This contrasts with the House, where members become issue experts behind the cloak of committees and majority rule.
``The Senate is a bigger soapbox with a larger audience than the House,'' says a senior House staffer. ``Not too many in the House get nominated for president.''
The changes in the Senate have made the filibuster commonplace. The 103rd Congress had 32 filibusters, twice the total in the entire 19th century.
Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut are trying to ban the legislative device. But that is unlikely. Any action to change the rule in the Senate requires 67 votes. Weakening the filibuster means weakening individual power, and any member could block a vote with a filibuster.
When the 104th Congress convenes, Mr. Gingrich is bound to have his frustrations with the Senate. He has vowed to bring all 10 parts of the Contract to a vote in the first 100 days of the next session.
But he can control the terms of debate and has a cohesive majority under strong leadership to propel his agenda.
A tougher sell
The Contract faces a different game in the Senate. Mr. Dole cannot limit debate under the Senate's open rules, nor is the GOP majority large and cohesive. At 53, the Republicans are still seven votes short to break a filibuster.
``The Senate will drive House Republicans crazy just as it drove House Democrats crazy,'' says Barbara Sinclair, a Congress expert at the University of California, Riverside. ``Things won't swish through. There's a real bias toward stalemate in the Senate.''
``The Senate is reactive, but may dictate the agenda in the end,'' says Roger Davidson, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. ``Newt Gingrich has advantages. But you've still got to get the votes in the Senate.''
For all its faults, Senator Cochran, a member of the House from 1973-78, says: ``The public mood doesn't upset the Senate as much as it does the House. That's the genius of the Senate.''