Bitter Partisan Disputes Block Senate Action

Times Staff Writer

As Congress edges toward its summer recess, the Senate is in a state of near paralysis, a condition brought on by unusually bitter partisan wrangling that is blocking action on crucial legislative measures, veteran leaders of both political parties say.

And looming in the fall is a legislative logjam of staggering proportions, and there is no indication the situation will improve.

So far this year, the Senate stalemate has delayed work on the heart of the congressional agenda: budget and tax issues, appropriations bills for energy, water and highway programs, Pentagon funding authorizations, campaign finance reform proposals and debate on the reflagging of tankers in the Persian Gulf.

Wrenching Debate

The little work that has been done, on trade reform and legislation to increase the federal government's debt limit, has come only after weeks of wrenching debate and angry rhetoric that seems to be rising along with the heat and humidity on Capitol Hill.

Complaints that the Senate is not getting anything done, especially compared to the swifter-paced House, are nothing new. For years, the branch of Congress known as "the world's greatest deliberative body" has been legendary for its parliamentary delays, stem-winding debates and partisan clashes that slow deliberations to a snail's pace.

But some observers believe the current deadlock is extraordinary. The combination of so many issues jamming up at once and more waiting in the wings--notably the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as aid to the Nicaraguan contras-- "is unprecedented . . . I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this," said Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).

Earlier this year, as heavy snows fell on the nation's capital, the situation could not have been more different. Democrats, who had just recaptured the Senate after six years in the minority, vowed to push an ambitious legislative program through Congress. At first, it seemed nothing would get in their way.

President Reagan's vetoes of bills for highway improvements and clean water programs were swiftly overridden, and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) warned that the White House should adjust to "new political realities." Democratic leaders ticked off a laundry list of major legislation they expected to send to the President by the end of this year.

Then came the big freeze. Senate Republicans, who said they were initially surprised by the strong show of Democratic unity, decided on a deliberate slowdown of the legislative juggernaut.

"We Republicans were determined to hold them back," said Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). "There are ways to do that. That's the way the Senate works. And what it means is that nothing happens."

Pace of Work Slowed

By early March, the pace of Senate work had begun to slow noticeably. In May, the onset of the Iran-contra hearings delayed business even more. Meanwhile, Republicans served notice that they would no longer "roll over and play dead" on several key issues, according to Senate Minority Whip Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.).

In some cases, Republican leaders mounted filibusters--or unlimited debates--on selected issues, and Democrats failed to garner the 60 votes needed to force bills to a vote. On other issues, bitter partisan squabbles have simply prevented any consensus.

Byrd, who seemed to have been caught off guard by the Republican stall, has reacted angrily, saying: "There has never been an organized strategy to stop the United States Senate from handling major pieces of legislation like the one the Republicans are mounting now."

The casualties include some of the more important bills to come before the 100th Congress.

Tied in Knots

For example, the Senate has been tied in knots over a bill authorizing $303 billion for the Department of Defense. Normally, defense authorizations receive careful scrutiny but go promptly to the President for signature, with delays, if any, coming on the appropriation bill that actually funds programs. This year, however, Democrats tacked an amendment onto the authorization that would ban tests of any space-based anti-ballistic missiles unless approved by Congress.

The result was a Republican filibuster that began May 13 and which sponsors refuse to end until Democrats remove the amendment. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) said "there's just no way we'll give the Russians in Congress what they can't get in Geneva. . . . They (the Democrats) should know they can't send that kind of bill to the floor and expect us to look the other way."

Democrats have dug in their heels and refuse to delete the controversial proposal. Nunn, who co-authored it, said Republicans "are practicing the politics of obstructionism, pure and simple. . . . In all my years in Congress, I've never seen a filibuster on a Defense Department bill, not even in the heart of the Vietnam War."

Election Spending Limits

Similarly, Republicans have blocked action on a Democratic proposal for new limits on federal election spending and limited public funding of political campaigns. Byrd has led several unsuccessful attempts to choke off a filibuster that he bitterly referred to as a "scorched earth policy . . . a negative policy. It's no policy at all. How can they (Republicans) run for reelection on something like that?"

For their part, Senate Republicans defend the campaign finance filibuster as a matter of life or death. Any proposal that limits contributions and provides for public funding of campaigns could give Democratic candidates an unfair advantage, Simpson said.

"That kind of thing could put a Republican Senate out of our reach for 50 years," he complained. "It's a threat and we will do whatever we can to stop it. I will not step by and watch something like this sail through. I'll use whatever tactics, including delays, I can."

Trade Reform Bill

On other issues, deep-seated disagreements have prevented the two parties from passing legislation quickly. The consideration of a massive trade reform bill was slowed in recent weeks by a flurry of controversial amendments, some not at all germane to the issue.

Democrats, for example, sought repeatedly to tack a provision on the bill that expressed concerns about the Administration's move to reflag Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf. Once again, the Republicans held firm and filibustered the issue to death.

A final consequence of the stalemate is that the full Senate has not even begun to consider major appropriations bills that keep the government operating, nor has it written legislation implementing next year's budget--including a Democratic plan to raise $19 billion in new taxes.

Meanwhile, the House continues to pass legislation that increases the pileup in the Senate, including catastrophic health insurance, financial payments to victims of nuclear accidents and additional appropriations bills. The growing backlog suggests that Congress, as in previous years, will be forced to bundle up the appropriation bills into one unwieldy package later in the year and vote for the so-called "mega-bill" simply to finish its business.

Lawmakers Not Proud

Democrats and Republicans said they are not proud of the legislative debacle, but also refuse to accept responsibility for it.

"I don't think you can blame us," said an aide to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.). "They (the Democrats) want to keep the majority, we want to take it away, and there are issues that divide us. That's nothing new. That's the way things work around here."

Byrd blames the slowdown on the White House as much as Senate Republicans. The Reagan Administration "is the most harshly partisan we've ever had to deal with," said a Democratic majority staffer. "With the President threatening to veto so much of our legislation, it's become a negative situation."

Several weeks ago, Byrd threatened to retaliate with delaying tactics of his own, most notably on the Bork nomination. But he has since cooled on that idea, saying both sides need to turn down the rhetoric and deal responsibly with the nomination.

As the siege continues, the Senate appears headed for lengthy sessions this week before starting its four-week vacation, which is scheduled to begin Saturday.

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