A radical shift in congressional power centers

After just a week, it's clear it's not going to be the same Congress. From a historic power-sharing agreement in the Senate to the quiet drama of powerful committee chairmen in the House of Representatives giving up their gavels, the 107th Congress is rewriting the rules on how power is exercised in Washington.

The biggest shift comes in the Senate, where party leaders had been closely negotiating how to manage a 50-50 split. The last time the Senate faced such a divide, in 1881, it deadlocked for months until the numbers changed.

But this time, Republican and Democratic leadership came up with a solution: For the first time, both parties will have equal representation on committees, equal budgets, staff, and office space. Both will also have a say in how issues are managed on the floor of the Senate.

It's a sea change in how the Senate does its business. In the past, committee chairs could use their majority edge to keep issues and nominations bottled up in committee. And in the previous Congress, majority leader Trent Lott blocked Democrats from even offering amendments to GOP bills on the floor.

That ends. The agreement voted on Friday ensures that both parties can get their key issues to the floor of the Senate. For Democrats, that means that issues such as an increase in the minimum wage, gun control, and a patients' bill of rights get a hearing.

"This resolution may haunt me, but it's fair and it allows us to go on with the people's business," said Senator Lott.

Some GOP committee chairmen worry that the agreement goes too far and could mean that no one is in control. But others insist that the bottom line of a 50-50 split is that the Senate's business is bipartisan, or it isn't done at all.

Overhauling campaign finance will be an early test of these new rules of the game. Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin plan to launch a new effort at campaign-finance reform as the first act of legislative business in the new Congress. Similar bills have passed the House, but been repeatedly blocked from consideration by the GOP leadership in the Senate.

Sponsors say they now have the votes they need to ensure a full and open debate on this issue - and the tie in the Senate is a big help.

"The time is now to explore common ground with an open amendment process. We have to move this issue, and this 50-50 split frees everybody up to explore how," said Senator Feingold last week.

No less dramatic a change was the transition of committee chairs in the House last week. Republicans retook the House in 1994 on a promise to limit powerful committee chairs to six-year terms. But as the six-year limit approached this year, many analysts were convinced a way would be found to change the rule.

While there were accommodations around the edges, the rule stood. And senior Republicans, who would have dearly loved to stay in their chairs, moved on to other assignments.

"The closeness of the election will guarantee a lot of tension. My hope is that the word 'compromise' is adopted by all of us," says Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, who was term-limited out of chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee and will take over the International Relations Committee.

If the first week of the 107th Congress required any further proof that rules matter, it was evident in Saturday's count of electoral votes for the presidency.

Some 20 objections to the Florida count were repeatedly ruled out of order by the presiding officer, Vice President Al Gore. To each House Democrat objecting to a count that denied Mr. Gore the presidency, Gore raised the same question: Do you have support from a senator (as required by law)?

"I don't care that it is not signed by a senator," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California, a strong Gore supporter.

"You will be advised that the rules do care," he said.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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