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The go-to guy

"The go-to guy" Continued...

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

Mr. Leahy isn't the only one in the Senate holding up President Bush's nominees. For months, Republican John McCain of Arizona has single-handedly blocked the chamber from voting on nominations by putting a "hold" on every Bush appointee. He vowed to halt the entire process until the president agreed to appoint a liberal Democrat to the Federal Election Commission, which has oversight of campaign-finance restrictions, Mr. McCain's signature issue. Mr. Bush relented on July 24, promising a recess appointment of Ellen Weintraub if the full Senate had not approved her by the time it adjourns in October. A mollified Mr. McCain ended his blockade, allowing confirmation of 15 nominees the next day.

Still, for all the caveats and the shared blame, it is clearly Mr. Daschle and his allies in the Senate leadership who have done the most to create the logjam in Washington. Here's a look at some of their unfinished business:

Judicial Appointments

Republicans may want to delay what looks like a defeat for Priscilla Owen, but they wish the Judiciary Committee would at least give a hearing to the president's other nominees. By this point in President Clinton's first term, 128 of his judicial choices had already been confirmed, compared to just 59 for President Bush. Indeed, of the first 11 names sent to the Senate in May 2001, fewer than half have received a committee hearing, much less a floor vote.

Liberals would love to block Bush judges permanently, if they possibly could. Barry Lynn, the left-wing anti-religion activist, told one rally that the president should not be allowed to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. If one of the justices were to retire, Democrats should simply tell Mr. Bush that "eight is enough," Mr. Lynn said.

Senate Democrats can't actually say such things, of course, but they don't really need to. The Daschle-Leahy team has bottled up Bush nominees in the Judiciary Committee, fearing they would win confirmation before the full Senate. But even center-left organizations like the Brookings Institution have begun to criticize that strategy.

"The Bush administration is doing its best to stay on pace, but the Senate is clearly slowing down. It's time to end the drought," said Brookings scholar Paul Light, who noted that Mr. Bush has been quicker than Mr. Clinton to select his nominees, yet the Senate has been confirming them at a record slow pace.

Happily for Mr. Daschle, except at the Supreme Court level, judicial appointments aren't usually a big deal with voters, so the controversy will likely be confined to Republican activists and a few think tanks-unless the president makes a public issue of it (see sidebar below).

Homeland Security

At the president's request, the House managed to pass the biggest government reorganization since the 1940s before its members left town for the summer. Their bill would create a new, cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security with 170,000 workers and a budget of $38 billion. The Senate, however, not only failed to act before it recessed, but also warned that it won't have its version of the bill completed by Sept. 11-a deadline originally proposed by Democrat Richard Gephardt.

Though Mr. Daschle stresses the need for further study of the massive reorganization, the main sticking point in the Senate appears to be political: President Bush insists that employees of the security-sensitive department should be exempted from union compacts that govern such issues as hiring, firing, and overtime. Democrats are afraid the House version of the bill, which mirrors the president's position, would weaken the labor movement, a key constituency.

The issue is fraught with peril for the Democrats, however. Since Sept. 11, Americans have shown they are willing to trade almost anything for a greater sense of security, so the fate of the labor movement is probably less important to the average voter than it is to the average Democratic senator.

By drawing out the debate over Homeland Security beyond next Sept. 11, the Democrats also play to the Republicans' strength in the closing days of the congressional elections. President Bush would like nothing better than to have public attention focused on the war on terrorism, where polls show that voters trust him by enormous margins. If the Senate is still absorbed with creating a new department to fight terrorism, Democrats will find it hard to focus voters' attention on corporate scandals and other issues that might hurt the GOP.

Budget

On Oct. 1, just when lawmakers want to focus on their reelection campaigns, they instead have to make sure the federal government has the money to keep its lights on. With the current fiscal year set to end Sept. 30, Congress has to come up with 13 separate appropriations bills for fiscal year 2003. The House has thus far delivered three of its bills, but the Senate has yet to get started.

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