WASHINGTON – A major partisan battle over Senate organization now seems unavoidable next week when the Senate returns from Memorial Day break.
The office of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, has released its proposal to reorganize the Senate when Democrats assume the majority at the end of business June 5th. After Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' decision to leave the GOP and become an independent, he handed the Democrats an operational majority in the Senate.
Under Daschle's plan, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-WV, will be the Senate president pro tempore and the Democrats will enjoy one-seat majorities on all Senate committees. The resolution authorizes each of the two party leaders to appoint members to the committees. The resolution will require approval by the full Senate and it could be subject to a filibuster.
As a condition of the restructuring, however, Republicans are insisting on "fair" treatment and a commitment from Democrats that all of the president's judicial nominees will not be bottled up in committee, but will come to the Senate floor for consideration. Without such a commitment, a filibuster may be inevitable, an aide to Sen. Trent Lott said.
But Daschle spokeswoman Ranit Schmeltzer said Thursday that there will be no such agreement. Schmeltzer added that there is no precedent for any "pre-commitments" on nominees and to offer one would "be an abdication of the Senate's advise and consent role."
Daschle has said repeatedly that Democrats will approach all presidential nominees in a bipartisan way, but many Republicans are skeptical of Daschle's claims.
If Democrats reject the Republican demand, Republicans could then attempt to block the Democratic organizational plan with a filibuster. After June 5 and until such time as a new structure is approved, the Senate will operate under organizational rules that prevailed during last year's Congress.
Under that set-up, Democrats will operate as committee chairmen but Republicans will make up the majorities of most committees since in the 106th Congress the GOP held a 55-45 advantage.
If the structure of the 106th Congress prevails, the GOP will have majorities on the Agriculture, Appropriations, Armed Services, Banking, Energy, Environment, Finance, Government Affairs, Rules and Intelligence Committees. Five committees would be tied, however: Judiciary, Budget, Foreign Relations, Commerce, Health-Education, Labor and Pensions.
Each of the tied committees is particularly important to the Bush agenda. Bush's nominees will be decided in the Judiciary Committee; budget battles will be fought out in the Budget Committee; Foreign Relations will face issues on China, the Middle East, the United Nations and national missile defense; and the Education Committee will be concerned with the Bush education agenda and prescription drugs.
The only committee with a Democratic majority would be Veterans Affairs.
Democratic aides say that if Republicans filibuster, one recourse for Daschle would be to shut down all Senate committees.