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The Nation

GOP Will Need Democrats' Help on Rest of Agenda

Republicans control the Senate by a tight margin and face divisions among themselves.

May 25, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Wanted: Nine Democrats.

That's the challenge facing Republican leaders in Congress as they move beyond last week's success in passing the nation's third-largest tax cut.

The $350-billion tax package was approved by the slimmest of margins. And Republicans were aided by a special rule that enabled them to pass the legislation with just 51 votes in the Senate, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the tiebreaking vote.

For the future, if GOP leaders and President Bush want to enact Medicare reform, legal reform, welfare reform, energy legislation and many other major items remaining on the administration agenda, they will have to find a strategy to consistently muster 60 votes in a Senate that has just 51 Republicans.

That is the supermajority generally required to break a Senate filibuster.

Finding those nine votes will be no easy task. Democrats are still smarting from their tax defeat and spoiling for fights with the Bush administration as they look ahead to the presidential election. Four Democratic senators, in fact, are charging hard for their party's nomination to oppose Bush.

Further obstacles to enactment of significant legislation stem from internal divisions among Republicans themselves. On any given issue, a few Republicans centrists, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona or Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, are liable to break from their leadership and at least threaten to give Democrats the upper hand.

Even Republican conservatives can have strong disagreements on legislative substance.

Consider, for example, the sometimes-rocky relationship between Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield). Grassley and Thomas held hard negotiations over the tax bill, with Grassley trying to keep a lid on the cost in lost revenue and Thomas trying to expand the cuts.

Thomas stormed out of one meeting last week when Grassley told him a plan the House favored would fail to get a majority in the Senate.

Asked about the incident Friday, Grassley told reporters: "I hope to educate Mr. Thomas in the next month that he ought to show a little more respect to people of equal rank.... I've never walked out on him, and I think I deserve equal consideration."

Aides to Thomas said Friday that he was unavailable and had no immediate response.

Such incidents matter because these two senior legislators probably will be forced into negotiations again if the House and Senate pass Medicare bills.

Despite the tension between the two lawmakers -- indeed, between their respective chambers -- Grassley said he expected more-cordial talks on Medicare reform.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Medicare will be a priority when Congress returns. "That's going to require bipartisan cooperation," Frist acknowledged. "It'll be hard work. But in the end, I know we can approve a plan to improve the current system."

Bush is urging Congress to act. In his State of the Union address in January, he pledged support for $400 billion to reform Medicare. But the administration has also expressed interest in using the lure of a new prescription drug benefit to move beneficiaries from the government-administered program into private managed-care plans.

Whether Democrats will want to compromise on those terms or demand concessions and then take the issue to the voters remains unclear. Some Democrats believe the onus is on Republicans to compromise, after the GOP rammed its tax bill through the Senate.

"We could do prescription drugs -- if they reach out," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a prominent liberal, said.

Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), a centrist, said both parties will face pressure to cut a deal. "We can't just continue to give seniors excuses," Breaux said. "They're going to march on Washington and burn down the buildings."

Similar choices -- make a deal or take a stand? -- will confront senators on legislation to promote energy production, reduce legal liability for business interests and reauthorize welfare reform. A highway construction bill could also tie up the Senate in July.

The prospects for Senate bipartisanship will depend largely on whether the two parties can work out an accord, or at least a truce, in their increasingly bitter battle over the federal judiciary.

Some Senate Republicans have suggested a unilateral rule change to quash Democratic filibusters on controversial Bush judicial nominations -- a threat that, if carried out, would send a shock wave through the chamber and seriously damage interparty relations.

In the House, where the Republican majority rules unchallenged, there is less appetite for bipartisan compromise. House Republican leaders say they plan to send a Senate-passed bill banning certain late-term abortions to President Bush soon after the Memorial Day recess. The House will also seek to begin passing the 13 annual appropriations bills that fund the government.

But the House will not shy away from confrontations with the Senate. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said last week that he wants to pass at least one tax-cutting bill over the summer and dare the Senate to act on it.

John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said that bill might be a permanent repeal of the estate tax. Under current law, the estate tax is scheduled to be reduced gradually, eliminated in 2010 and resurrected in 2011.

An outright repeal of the tax would require 60 votes -- not the 51-vote margin Republicans assembled in the Senate to pass the latest tax cut.

"All of the focus is going to be on Senate Democrats," Feehery said. "If they're going to be obstructionist, this is their time to shine."

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Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.

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