GOP Split Over Post-Jeffords Senate Agenda

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As they return this week to a Senate they no longer control, Republican lawmakers appear deeply divided over how to regroup, with GOP leaders urging a more combative, partisan tone while prominent moderates reach out to newly empowered Democrats.

The split came into sharp focus this weekend, with outgoing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) sending a memo to colleagues urging "an aggressive, offensive effort" against the Democratic agenda, even while centrist Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) played host to key Democratic leaders at his retreat near Sedona, Ariz.

The lawmakers' actions underscore the stark choices confronting the GOP in the wake of the defection of Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, a moderate who, after battling with the GOP's conservative wing, is becoming an independent and handing control of the Senate to Democrats for the first time since 1994.

"Republicans are staggering around here trying to figure out how to act in a post-Jeffords world," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. "It's a question of how much do you slide to the center versus how much you stay committed to the pre-Jeffords agenda."

The strains in the GOP are surfacing as senators return from the Memorial Day recess to confront a week that will likely be one of the most tumultuous in recent memory.

When Jeffords' change takes effect late Tuesday, it will tilt a previous 50-50 party balance in the Senate, and the Democrats will assume control. Leadership roles will be reversed, committee chairmen must turn over their gavels, freshman senators will temporarily lose their committee assignments and the legislative course that lawmakers envisioned just weeks ago will take an abrupt, leftward turn.

The Senate is used to turmoil in the wake of an election, but it has never confronted such a reorganization in the middle of a congressional session. The changes will have particular effect on party leaders, whose influence will turn on Jeffords' switch.

Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is poised to vault from minority leader to majority leader, giving him significant new power to set the Senate's legislative agenda.

His counterpart, Lott, will yield his title as majority leader for the first time since assuming the position in 1996. Lott has come under heavy criticism because Jeffords' defection marked the sixth Senate seat the GOP has lost under Lott's leadership over the last year.

Lott's memo--distributed to GOP leaders, senators scheduled to appear on talk shows today, as well as to conservative columnists and party officials--was viewed by some as an attempt to shore up his political base. It outlines a strategy of renewed aggression for Republicans.

Lott urged colleagues to characterize Jeffords' defection as a "coup of one" that subverts the will of the American people and requires "an aggressive, offensive effort" to advance the conservative agenda and stymie Democrats' plans. Republicans, the memo concludes, "must begin to wage the war today for the election in 2002."

The combative language, also reflected in recent radio appearances by Lott, indicates that he has rejected the more conciliatory, bipartisan approach that some in the party urged after Jeffords announced his change.

A GOP leadership aide said that Lott intends to return to the tactics he believes earned him his leadership position and that he will model his tenure as a minority leader in the Senate on the approach he took as a Republican whip in the House. Lott was then known for fierce partisanship and for demanding party discipline.

An aide to another GOP senator said Lott "is trying to shore up his right flank to make certain he can stem any problems he has right now."

Lott's partisan push will likely please hard-liners in the party, including Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who argued that the leadership had been too accommodating of its moderate wing.

But the new, more strident direction risks alienating centrists, including Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and McCain, who continue to be wooed by Democrats and who have bristled under Republican leadership that they consider too uncompromising.

When Jeffords announced his change, Chafee complained that "it's a tight, strong group of conservatives that call all the shots" among Senate Republicans. McCain argued that Republicans should learn from the episode to be more inclusive, saying, "It is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up."

The competing GOP impulses pose a dilemma for President Bush, as well as for a more pragmatic bloc of Republican senators that includes Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

"The risk of sounding bipartisan is that you alienate the base, making it seem as if Daschle is running the show," Rothenberg said. "At the same time, if you adopt just the Lott approach and appear to be picking a fight, that's the one thing the public doesn't like."

Although Republicans will lose control of the Senate, they still have a great deal of power to undercut the Democratic agenda and advance their own.

Republicans can force votes on their favorite issues simply by introducing amendments on the Senate floor. They can thwart measures they oppose by mounting a filibuster, a delay tactic that requires 60 votes, 10 more than Democrats control, to defeat.

"Being the majority ain't what it's cracked up to be," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas). "I'm not viewing the rest of this Congress with any horror. I can play offense and I can play defense, and I like both."

For their part, Democrats have made more conciliatory sounds as they approach their takeover. After Jeffords' announcement, Daschle noted that "we have a divided government. The only way we can accomplish our agenda . . . is if we truly work together."

Many Republicans quietly hope that Daschle will find serving as majority leader in a narrowly divided Senate as vexing as it has often seemed for Lott. But Democrats said Daschle is better suited for the situation because he is more patient and tolerant of the opposition.

In an interview Friday, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) criticized Lott for pursuing a "scorched-earth policy" during his term as Senate majority leader.

"Trent tried to manage the Senate as you would the House, and it doesn't go," Kennedy said. "Daschle's got a temperament which is much better suited for [the job]. He listens, he's principled. People like him and he gives credit to anybody that works with him."

Daschle was widely credited with wooing Jeffords away from the GOP. And this weekend brought speculation that Daschle is intensifying his courting of McCain, who hosted Daschle and Bruce Reed, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, at the GOP senator's Arizona retreat.

Nancy Ives, a spokeswoman for McCain, said that the gathering is "strictly a social visit" and that the senator "intends to remain a Republican."

One reason for McCain to stay put is that his centrist role could make him an important power broker, a key vote that will be repeatedly courted by Democrats.

There won't be any ceremony to mark the Senate transition. Jeffords is scheduled to become an independent at the close of business Tuesday. From then on, whenever Daschle ambles onto the Senate floor, he will simply be recognized as majority leader.

The ideological about-face is already underway.

Lott had previously pledged to spend much of June trying to pass pieces of Bush's energy plan. But Daschle is expected to call up legislation that the White House hoped to avoid, including a measure that would give patients expanded rights in health maintenance organizations and a bill that would raise the minimum wage.

But Daschle's first task will be to negotiate with Republicans on how to reorganize the Senate to reflect Democratic control. In the interim, committee assignments revert to those of the previous Congress, meaning first-term senators will temporarily lose committee seats.

The two sides appear to agree that Democrats now deserve a one-seat majority on committees. But Lott, in his memo, signaled that Republicans plan to treat the reorganization talks as the "first battle" confronting the GOP.

Lott named five veteran senators to lead the negotiations, and he has indicated that Republicans will insist on special protections for Bush nominees, whose appointments can now be delayed or blocked by Democrat-controlled committees.

As leverage, Lott and others have raised the possibility of filibustering any reorganization resolution that does not include nominee protections. But Republicans have not specified exactly what kinds of protections they will seek. A spokesman for Lott said specific terms will be spelled out this week, after Republicans have had a chance to meet.

Democrats, still smarting from the way Republicans tried to block many of President Clinton's nominees, may not be in the mood to grant Bush nominees any special treatment, although Daschle said Friday that Democrats "will not participate in payback."

*

Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this story.

*

RELATED STORY

McCain's 'no': Senator isn't bolting GOP to seek White House. A30

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°