| Senator Joseph Lieberman
Washington, Jan. 15: There is no shouting, no blocking the “well” of the House or anything remotely approaching the uproarious scenes sometimes seen in assemblies in Indian states.
With the finesse and decorum that comes with two centuries of legislative tradition, the Opposition Democrats in the US Senate have been engaged for one week in exactly what India’s Opposition often does in elected chambers: block all important legislative business.
Amidst almost weekly warnings from the FBI about terrorist threats to America and other domestic security concerns, the Senate’s government affairs committee was to have yesterday held hearings to confirm Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush’s powerful new “homeland security” czar.
But the administration was forced to put off the hearing after the committe’s outgoing chairman, Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, refused to vacate his chair. The White House was unwilling to let Ridge testify before a panel headed by a Democrat.
Similarly, with daily reports of thousands of people losing jobs in America’s troubled economy, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was to have testified yesterday before the Senate’s budget committee.
But with Senator Don Nickles, who has been nominated by the majority Republicans to head the panel unable to take his chair, Greenspan’s testimony also had to be put off.
In the 108th US Congress which began its first session last week following the mid-term elections in November, the Republicans have a one vote majority in the Senate.
So the Democrats want only 51 per cent of the budget for committees to go to the Republicans and they want 49 per cent. The Democrats also want membership of panels to reflect the narrow majority of the Republicans.
Traditionally the majority party gets two-thirds of the money and memberships with the minority party taking one-third. But that arrangement changed in 2001 when the disputed election of President Bush also ushered in a Senate in which Repubicans and Democrats were tied, each party with 50 members.
Both sides agreed to a virtually even split of committee resources. Shortly thereafter, when Senator Jim Jeffords defected from the Republicans and gave the Democrats a one vote majority, both parties agreed to continue that arrangement with minor changes.
The Democrats say that since they are now short of only one vote from majority in the new Senate, it is only fair that they get close to half the committee seats and money.
“If it was good for both parties in the last Congress with 51-49, we are simply saying it is good for this Congress”, Tom Daschle, the Senate leader for Democrats, said.
He favours a permanent system where the committees reflect the composition of the Senate. Until a settlement is reached, Democrats say they will insist on chairing the committees they control.
The committee system is an integral part of the US legislative process and Senate panels have veto power over presidential appointments from assistant secretaries to justices — even nominations to the Cabinet.
In view of the extreme urgency of confirming Ridge, both parties are understood to have come to a gentelman’s agreement today. Under this arrangement, Democrat Lieberman will start the proceedings as chairman and quietly leave the hearing after some time enabling Senator Susan Collins, the Republican chosen as incoming chairman, to take charge of the rest of the proceedings.
Ridge’s hearing has been rescheduled under this arrangement for Friday, but whether the agreement holds till then will depend on relations between the two sides by that time.
Bush has brought relations between the two parties to its nadir since he became President by nominating extremely conservative judges for confirmation and proposing a tax cut, widely viewed as favouring the rich. Pressing budgetary matters are pending before Senate panels, including a package of spending Bills that the last Congress did not pass. The new Republican Senate leader Bill Frist warned this week that he would cancel the usual mid-January adjournment of the Senate unless legistaive work is completed.
He said 11 newly-elected Senators had no committee work because of the dispute and “it is going to get very confusing” to Americans if the Senate cannot even name committees and their chairmen. “The Democrats are doing something that is totally unprecedented in the history of the US”, he said. If the dispute is not resolved by the end of February, committees will run out of money for their work altogether.