WASHINGTON – Keeping a promise to retaliate against Democrats who voted down federal court nominee Judge Charles Pickering, Republicans effectively shut down two Senate committees before they could consider Enron-related legislation.
Republicans objected to Senate committees and hearings running more than two hours Wednesday, forcing an end to a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) meeting. Another meeting was called for Thursday morning.
The shutdown came before a vote could be taken on a bill that would limit employer stock in 401(k) plans, a proposal initiated by the plight of employees who lost their entire savings during the recent Enron bankruptcy.
Republicans say the measure would unfairly restrict companies, which would stop making matching contributions or even offering the voluntary 401(k) plans.
"All they're doing is delaying the inevitable," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for committee chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. "We'll vote tomorrow morning to send this bill to the Senate floor for a vote."
Kennedy's bill would let employers contribute to their employees' plans with matching company stock or let workers buy the stock as an investment option, but not both.
"What you essentially are going to see is the death of the 401(k)," said ranking Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., a friend of Pickering's who said the judge was sunk by unfair attacks from special interest groups and Democrats, pledged last week that the Senate's messy treatment of Pickering's nomination would not go unaccounted for.
"Senate Republicans strongly believe that we should have an understanding on when President Bush's circuit court nominees, many of whom have been languishing in the Judiciary Committee for almost a year, will get hearings and be treated fairly," Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Lott, said Wednesday. "We will continue to call attention to this issue."
Three Democrat-controlled committees were targeted for gridlock — Judiciary, Governmental Affairs, and HELP — but a Judiciary subcommittee hearing was concluded before the order to close down was issued.
The Republican maneuver did interrupt the Governmental Affairs Committee, which was examining why the three Wall Street credit rating agencies maintained high ratings for Enron until four days before its bankruptcy filing Dec. 2.
Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., officially adjourned the hearing, but refused to halt proceedings, saying they would continue as an informal meeting or discussion.
Separately, the House Education and Workforce Committee passed its own pension legislation Wednesday that is similar to White House proposals, setting up a clash between Senate Democrats and House Republicans over protections for retirement savings plans.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, veers from President Bush's plan by requiring workers to hold company-matched employer stock for three years before they can sell it. Bush's plan would let workers sell the stock three years after joining the plan.
The bill also would let workers receive financial advice from the same companies that manage their 401(k) accounts. House leaders plan to merge the legislation with another pension bill passed by the House Ways and Means Committee last week that would let workers use pretax money to pay for independent investment advice. A vote on the House floor is expected next month.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.