Deliberative Senate – now deliberative to a fault?

Stop-and-start uncertainty is pattern as lawmakers consider drug benefits, terrorism insurance.

More than 50 bills that sailed through the House of Representatives, plus scores of judicial nominations, are now stacked up like cordwood in the Senate, where action has become increasingly tortuous as the November elections near.

Measures in doubt include Medicare drug benefits, terrorism insurance, and a budget resolution, which neither house of Congress has failed to pass since spending rules were enacted in 1974.

Hard-fought battles, of course, have been the norm in the Senate since it swung narrowly into Democratic control last year, providing a platform for sparring with House Republicans and President Bush.

But the approaching election, division among Democrats, and the human dynamics of a body where the opposition of even a single senator can stall a bill, have made the legislative path tougher still.

"There is absolutely no reason – no reason except cheap political gamesmanship – that we can't have a prescription-drug benefit before election day," says Zell Miller (D) of Georgia, who introduced a bill on the matter yesterday..

Republicans, trying to pressure Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, have painted the slowdown as a sign that Democrats can't govern. They have tagged Mr. Daschle as an "obstructionist" since December.

He has joked about it ("Hi. My name is Tom, and I'm an obstructionist...."), then quietly stewed about it ("Why don't you reporters talk about how Republicans are the real obstructionists?").

But the tough slogging in the weeks to come won't just be between parties. Mr. Daschle also faces splits in his caucus on issues such as tax cuts and spending that he prefers to resolve in quiet negotiations before bringing to votes.

If delay and deliberation are a hallmark of the current Senate, they aren't a new – or even controversial – feature in this wing of the Capitol. Asked why the new Congress was created with two houses, George Washington is said to have replied: "We pour House legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it." Founding Father James Madison wrote that the Senate would be a check on House "impulse."

Over time, the unwritten rules and culture of the Senate gave members even more powers to derail bills they opposed. The idea that senators have a right to unlimited debate was not in founding documents, but it soon evolved into practice. It now takes 60 votes to end debate.

Still, bipartisan support has allowed for passage of Mr. Bush's tax cut, school reform, and antiterror measures.

In recent weeks, bills on energy and farm subsidies have plowed forward haltingly. Energy, which swiftly cleared the House last August, bogged down for six weeks in the Senate. In the end, the parties blocked each other's top priorities for boosting energy supply or cutting demand. The bill must be reconciled with a House measure.

Nor is the balance of the Senate agenda likely to be any easier.

A bill to expand presidential authority to negotiate trade deals – despite a traditionally pro-free-trade Senate – faces a long fight over how much relief should be provided to workers who lose their jobs because of trade.

TERRORISM insurance, a measure considered vital for big properties since the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, is making its way to the Senate floor, but with serious obstacles to agreement. It passed the House Nov. 15. The Senate sticking point: Republican demands to limit the damages in tort cases.

On budget issues, Daschle has opted so far for delay, rather than risk divisive votes in his caucus. Six Democrats who voted for Bush's tax cut are up for reelection.

Meanwhile, a bitter standoff over stalled judicial nominations is souring the mood. Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, smarting over the humiliating defeat of a nominee from his home state, threatened to grind the Senate to a halt if Democrats did not move on confirmations and end "character assassination."

"Only about 31 percent of the president's Circuit Court nominees have been confirmed. Other presidents have had 86 percent and higher," says a spokesman for Sen. Don Nickles, the minority whip.

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