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Do-nothing Senate | Gumming up the president's agenda in Congress? No sweat. For Tom Daschle the best offense is a good defense. But will the voters reward his hard work? As Congress goes on summer break: a review of the nonachievement thus far

Issue: "Tools of a tyrant," Aug. 10, 2002

Back in February of 1997, Bill Clinton was having trouble sleeping. Already tarred by the most scandals in modern history, the president was worried about mounting GOP calls for yet another independent counsel, this one to investigate alleged fundraising irregularities. With evidence piling up that John Huang, Charlie Trie, and others had made illegal donations to the Clinton campaign, even Democrats were beginning to call for an outside investigation. Sen. Pat Moynihan, then the senior senator from New York, was the first Democrat to lower the boom, followed by Sen. Russ Feingold and former Sen. Bill Bradley.

The president had to stop the bleeding, and he knew just whom to call.

According to contemporary news reports, Tom Daschle's phone rang at 1 a.m. on a Monday. An angry Bill Clinton reminded the South Dakota senator how much money the president was raising for Democratic senators-and this was the thanks he got? The Democratic calls for an independent counsel had to stop, he told Mr. Daschle.

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Fast forward to May of 2001. When Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords switched parties, giving Democrats a one-vote majority in the Senate, they needed a leader who could stop the flood of legislation coming from a Republican president and House of Representatives. Like Mr. Clinton, they knew just whom to call.

As senators prepared for a month-long recess on Aug. 2, Sen. Daschle, the majority leader, finally allowed his party to pass a flurry of bills and confirm a dozen presidential appointments. The White House got its wish for fast-track trade authority, and President Bush signed a law aimed at curbing corporate accounting fraud.

But those measures, passed just before the lights went out in Washington, were clearly the exception rather than the rule. GOP House leaders, who started their own recess a week earlier, complain bitterly that Sen. Daschle and his allies in the upper chamber have spent the entire year burying legislation sent over from the other side of the Hill. House Majority Leader Dick Armey singled out 50 bills passed by his colleagues that Sen. Daschle refused even to bring to a vote on the Senate floor. "The American people want action. They don't want political posturing," Mr. Armey said, urging the Senate to "Free the Daschle 50" from legislative limbo. "The Democrat-led Senate has a responsibility to vote on legislation. In fact, it's their job."

The question now, especially for the 34 members facing reelection, is: After seven months as a do-nothing Senate, what grade will their last-minute efforts earn them from voters?

Republicans learned the hard way that stonewalling in Washington can get you stoned back home. Back in 1995, when they let the federal government shut down rather than pass a controversial Clinton budget, the backlash from voters was fierce. By 1998, the GOP nearly lost the House majority it had secured just four years earlier, and Newt Gingrich was toppled from his perch as Speaker.

This year, clinging to a bare 11-vote margin, House leaders were determined to prove they were earning their paychecks. The tightly organized Republican caucus has moved quickly through the president's agenda, giving Mr. Bush nearly everything he asked for on issues ranging from human cloning to welfare reform to immigration reform. That kind of quick action hasn't gone unnoticed by the White House: "We have been pleased with how many of our initiatives have moved through the House of Representatives, and been frustrated by the fact they haven't moved through the Senate," President Bush said.

Admittedly, some of the work piling up at the Senate's door is the result of political posturing by the GOP. In attempting to make tax cuts permanent, for instance, the House leadership unbundled last year's cuts (income tax, estate tax, marriage penalty, etc.) and passed each as a separate bill. That forced Senate Democrats to vote repeatedly against extending the cuts, enabling GOP challengers to charge, "My opponent voted against tax cuts x number of times."

Nor are Democrats the only ones who can stall votes in the Senate. On July 30, Republican staffers browsing the Judiciary Committee website got quite a jolt: Priscilla Owen, President Bush's nominee to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, would get a committee vote the next day-after nearly 14 months of waiting. GOP strategists charged that Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) rushed the extra session-originally scheduled for early September-onto the calendar because he knew he had the votes to defeat the pro-life, pro-business judge.

Suddenly, it was the Republicans clamoring for more time. The Justice Department demanded that Ms. Owen be allowed to respond to the 75 follow-up questions she had received from Democrats after her committee hearing just a week earlier. "After 439 days without a hearing, what is the drive for scheduling a sudden vote?" wondered Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh. Judiciary Committee Republicans wondered the same thing. They immediately announced they would employ a parliamentary device allowing them to put off the vote for a week. With the impending recess, that would move things back to early September, as originally planned.

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