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Last week, members of the Senate leadership from both sides of the aisle finally agreed to a reorganization plan for the chamber. Though the funding levels and the makeup of the committees are resolved, Democrats led by Senator Daschle achieved their aim to slow the Republican momentum gained by the November election.
The nearly two week stalemate effectively disrupted the rollout of the Republican agenda and gave Majority Leader Bill Frist his first of many conflicts during the 108th Congress. Democratic stalling tactics on Senate reorganization was a shrewd political maneuver, a harbinger of what is to come, and part of a larger strategy to derail the majority’s legislative priorities. The Democratic plan is to subvert the legislative process prior to the 2004 elections to make it appear as though the majority is both leaderless and feckless when it comes to addressing the issues.
If the Democrats succeed in stalling key pieces of legislation, Republicans will find themselves on the defensive come election season. They’ll have to fight off a Democratic campaign that paints them as the “do nothing” party. President Bush should be most concerned with this, as should Republican legislators up for reelection in 2004. Importantly, both the President and legislators will need a solid record to campaign on and take credit.
But, Minority Leader Daschle knows that this session will be short-lived because of the 2004 Presidential election, and he’s going to do everything in his power to rein-in the majority’s preferred policies and slow the legislative process. With three confirmed Democratic senators running for President (Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman) and three possible contenders (Graham, Biden, Clinton), legislative business in the Senate will be abbreviated as candidates hit the fundraising and campaign trails as early as September. Therefore, Republicans have eight months – not including all the recesses – to pass legislation and improve the economy.
The GOP bears the burden to get the economy rolling again. Yet, Daschle and the Democrats are keenly aware that a 51-49 Republican majority doesn’t guarantee Republican success. The Minority Leader will exploit this vulnerability by employing delay tactics such as filibusters on President Bush’s circuit court nominees, which would be unprecedented. Political maneuvers like this can easily embroil the legislative process in a quagmire, abruptly stopping the gains won in 2002.
To protect their majority, Republicans must go on the offensive quickly. A narrow gap of opportunity exists to pass legislation that will get the economy rolling again, create jobs, provide for long-term economic growth, and convince voters that the GOP should be in the Congressional driver’s seat. Republicans must force Democrats to either acquiesce to the Minority Leader’s ploy and risk being defeated in 2004 or vote with the GOP on issues that voters support.
The first step is to finish the appropriations process. Unfortunately, due to the amount of amendments that have to be addressed, it looks as though it will not be completed prior to the State of the Union Address on January 28. Nevertheless, an omnibus bill will be passed and the conference should hold steady on spending and keep to the President’s set level.
Undoubtedly, the economy’s health (and foreign affairs) will be a main 2004 elections topic. The President’s economic growth and jobs creation package – if passed – will help Republicans on the campaign trail, but it will not be easy to enact. First, because it will be subjected to Democratic filibuster, it will have to pass under reconciliation. To do this, the Senate will have to agree on a 2004 budget resolution. (This isn’t the easiest thing to do – the Senate failed to pass one last year for 2003). The abridged legislative session will pressure Republicans to pass a budget, but once one is passed, the President’s proposal should get out of the Senate with a simple majority (reconciliation).
Though the President’s economic growth and jobs creation package will help, the Senate’s majority should also focus on passing other pieces of legislation that strengthens the economy, shores up its voter base, and leaves a positive impression on swing voters.
For instance, passing reasonable medical malpractice reform would be a step in this direction. It would improve patients’ medical care, lessen the overall health insurance costs for individuals, doctors, and other health care professionals, and reduce unnecessary Medicare and Medicaid fees.
In tandem with medical malpractice reform, Congress should take up the asbestos litigation issue. Asbestos litigation is responsible for billions of dollars of lost capital; it bankrupts numerous companies and shutters industries; and the ungodly amount of frivolous lawsuits eliminates thousands of jobs for American workers. Senator and Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), recognizes that there are legitimate tort claims, but he also realizes that too many trial lawyers have used this issue as a pretext for claims intended only to pad their firms’ coffers.
Moving on other issues like advancing the President’s judicial nominees and reauthorizing welfare reform will help galvanize the base. Judicial confirmations played a key role in the 2002 elections and ultimately helped the Republicans. With the majority, Republicans should rapid fire the nominees through the confirmation process. Senators like Chuck Schumer, have vowed to stall some nominees. Republicans should call their bluffs and force moderate Democrats to lobby against their far left members’ unprecedented maneuvers. If this doesn’t work, it’ll be a good election issue again.
Finally, the 1996 welfare reform act is up for reauthorization. It will be important for Republicans to reauthorize the bill without it being watered down by lax conditions as Senator Baccus (D-MT) has advocated. For the Republican conservative base, this is an important issue, and as the majority, Republicans need to ensure that the 1996 reform act’s gains are not rolled back. Acting on judicial nominations and holding firm on welfare reform will help to solidify the Republican base for the 2004 elections.
Granted, Republicans don’t have a lot of time to get things done. Complicating matters will be foreign policy items that steal time and resources. We can reasonably predict that some Democrats will take every advantage to employ filibusters and other delay tactics to stop the Republican agenda. In the end, Republicans will be responsible for the economy, growth in jobs, and economic expansion. It’s imperative that the GOP in the Senate start moving legislation to counter Daschle’s plans to derail the process. By moving legislation, Republicans can build a solid foundation to campaign on and importantly, place Democrats on the defensive, as many moderates would have to make tough votes and decisions prior to election-day. Some Democrats running in 2004 may even break away from their base in order to distance themselves from Daschle’s tactics. The best way to counter Daschle’s machinations is to go on the offensive and force the issues on Democrats.