WASHINGTON – Senators may or may not work out a deal Wednesday on committee assignments, chairmanships and money for each side, resolving a heated debate that left the Senate paralyzed Tuesday and forced hearings to be canceled.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he believes an agreement on how to split up funds and resources for committees in this Congress could be hammered out by the end of the day, though Democrats are clearly not budging on their position that they get more in funding than the minority party has previously had.
"What's good enough for the 107th Congress at 51-49 is good enough for the 108th," he said.
Senate Republicans — back in power for a week now — have been fighting off Democrats who say that the split in legislative appropriations should be divided according to the proportionate split of the majority and minority. They want 45 percent of the money, arguing that's the way it was when independent Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords jumped ship in June 2001 and the Democrats took over a 51-49 majority.
Republicans say the legislative cash should be split two-thirds to one-third, as has been tradition throughout the Senate barring the period when Jeffords changed the balance.
The standoff is causing quite an organizational ruckus on Capitol Hill, leaving Republicans without the authority it would traditionally be granted, and forcing 11 new senators to flounder without portfolios.
The hold-up in organization forced incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., to postpone a Tuesday hearing on the economy with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
It also left Homeland Security Secretary-designate Tom Ridge waiting for confirmation. The administration called off a confirmation hearing for Ridge scheduled for Tuesday because it didn't want the outgoing Government Affairs Committee chairman, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., to preside.
Democrats and the White House repeatedly clashed during the last Congress over whether Ridge is obligated to testify before Congress on his job and the progress being made. President Bush has said Ridge is under no such obligation, since he is not yet a Senate-confirmed Cabinet member.
Democrats charged he has a responsibility to the American people to explain his course of action and where their taxpayer money is going.
Ridge's hearing was rescheduled for Friday after Lieberman and his successor, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreed to a plan in which Lieberman would gavel the hearing open and then turn it over to Collins.
On Wednesday, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chaired a hearing featuring Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers. Levin was chairman of the committee in the last session and is supposed to become the minority ranking member.
After the closed-door hearing, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the incoming chairman, said that the parties were cooperating to the fullest to keep communications open with the Pentagon and with one another.
"Sen. Levin and I start a quarter of a century of service together in this committee this week, and that, as a consequence, we need to have the strongest possible consultation process between the executive and the legislative branches. I think the Senate leadership joins me in that as do other members. But certainly, today, it was excellent," Warner said.
Normally, the Senate quickly disposes of the "organizing resolution" that outlines the Senate's structure. But the hold-up has led to accusations that Democrats are using it to prevent legislation, including a package of 11 spending bills for fiscal 2003 that the last Congress did not act on. Bush wants the bills on his desk as soon as possible. Current funding levels are set to expire at the end of the month.
Republicans also are pointing the finger at Democrats, saying they are using the circumstances as a way to block the White House's agenda.
Emerging from their weekly policy lunch on Tuesday, several Republicans called the Democratic strategy "unprecedented," "outrageous" and "tantamount to a coup."
"This is a routine recognition of who won the election. It is being turned into a leveraging of trying to get their procedural agenda through to try to slow up the nomination process and potentially the legislative process. That is almost incredible. I mean, it's tantamount to an attempted coup right here on the floor of the United States Senate," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said
GOP senators circulated an e-mail supposedly written by a Daschle staffer earlier this month stating that Democrats had leverage over the organizing resolution and little meaningful legislation would move on the Senate floor without an agreement.
"There's some who think that, if they just keep shoving it, that the crisis in our agenda is so important that Sen. Frist will just give in," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., referring to the new Senate majority leader. "I know he's not going to capitulate and give in to this unhistorical way to divide the leadership in this Senate."
Asked about the memo suggesting that Democrats were employing stalling tactics to thwart the GOP agenda, Daschle said, "It is a long-term plans in so long as we're not going to have fairness."
Later in the day, Daschle announced committee assignments for Democrats, but without a resolution it is unlikely any work will get done.
Asked if he would go so far as to characterize it as "tantamount to a coup," Frist hedged but then said: "I'm disappointed ... if that e-mail's in the public record, that you all read the e-mail and make your own decision. ... And if that is the strategy, the gist, the thrust of that memo, and if that is the spirit that as majority leader I have to operate and it's sustained over time, I think America's in big trouble."
Fox News' Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.