GOP adjusts to new, reduced role

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The Senate's switch in power has changed priorities from tax and budget cuts to patients' rights and a minimum wage increase. For some Republicans, it's a rude awakening.

Suddenly in the opposition, GOP senators must search for ways to obstruct elements of the Democratic agenda that they dislike without looking like obstructionists. Democrats, for their part, will be trying to flex their new muscle without coming off as heavy-handed.

''If the Senate really falls into unseemly public squabbling, all incumbent senators will lose as a result of it,'' said Ross K. Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University. ''They will lose prestige and the institution will be hurt.''

And so it was that both sides greeted the Senate's new balance of power Wednesday with flowery speeches about bipartisanship and cooperation.

''There's a lot of things we can do together,'' said new Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

''We commit and pledge our best efforts,'' returned Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Yet beneath the glossy veneer of bipartisanship, both sides already were laying down markers.

Republicans, for example, were trying to extract ground rules that would ensure President Bush's judicial nominees get a fair hearing and vote from the Democrats.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Republicans could draw on the example set by the Democrats when they were in the minority. ''Even though Tom Daschle smiled, they were in constant filibusters, constantly filing unlimited amendments,'' he said. ''I think there is leverage in the Senate to insist that legislation has balance.''

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., wasn't willing even to accept the label of opposition party, insisting, ''We're the party of the president. We're still the party that has the ball.''

Thomas Mann, a Congress watcher at the Brookings Institution, said Republicans could take comfort from the GOP majority still in place in the House and the Republican president.

''There's no need for Republicans to throw themselves in front of the Democratic bandwagon,'' said Mann. ''It's a pretty fragile bandwagon.''

Democrats, nonetheless, quickly signaled they were ready to strike out in new directions. Suddenly in control of every Senate committee, they readily scheduled hearings and prepared investigations on issues their Republican predecessors had steered around.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the new head of the Governmental Affairs Committee, promised Wednesday his first order of business would be a hearing on the government's refusal to intervene more aggressively in the California power market and circumstances surrounding a surge in gasoline prices. Likewise, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan is ready to use an investigations subcommittee to examine rising gasoline prices.

Republicans showed, even in their humor, that they recognized the changed political landscape.

Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., the outgoing chairman of the appropriations panel that handles veterans, housing and other agency budgets, said they were now heading down the ''Mikulski path,'' a reference to new chairwoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.

At the newly reconstituted panel's first hearing, he joked that, ''I've always said that one of my top priorities is cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay,'' a big issue for the Maryland senator.

Sen. James Jeffords, the Vermont senator who shifted power to the Democrats when he abandoned the GOP to become an independent, said he hoped Republicans had learned a lesson from his departure and would steer clear of obstructionist tactics.

''I think if they haven't learned by now, they never will,'' he said, urging GOP leaders to pay closer heed to moderate voices within the party. ''If they treat them poorly, their ability to do things that are constructive will be gone.''

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of a dwindling number of Republican moderates, had a message for both sides: ''Welcome to the middle.''

But each side clearly was prepared to lay aside conciliation if pushed too far.

''Obviously, in this line of work there are times when hardball is required,'' said Daschle.

Nancy Benac has reported on government affairs in Washington since 1983.

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