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Lame Duck Congress Convenes, Democrats Ask for Joint Committee Chairmanships

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As the lame duck Congress filters back to town this week, President Clinton called House and Senate leaders to the White House yesterday to try resolving their long-running battle over school spending, immigration and other issues. [includes rush transcript]

Many are saying that it is tough to predict how the lame-duck 106th Congress will end and the 107th will begin after the tangle left by the Nov. 7 election that has yet to produce a president.

The Senate emerged with the first 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats in its history, and the House of Representatives with a tiny Republican majority.


  • Jeff Earl, reporter for the National Journal’s Congress Daily. Speaking from Congress.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the lame duck Congress filters back to town this week, President Clinton called House and Senate leaders to the White House yesterday to try resolving their long-running battle over school spending, immigration and other issues. Many are saying it’s tough to predict how the lame duck 106th Congress will end and the 107th will begin after the tangle left by the November 7 election that’s yet to produce a president.

The Senate emerged with the first 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats in its history, and the House of Representatives with a tiny Republican majority. Senate Democratic leaders say they want equal representation on committees and a power-sharing arrangement, perhaps with co-chairs.

Jeff Earl joins us now, reporter for the National Journal’s Congress Daily.

How likely is this: joint power sharing and co-chair people of committees?

JEFF EARL: Well, I think it’s highly likely that there’s going to have to be some kind of accommodations between Republicans and Democrats. The Senate traditionally does give basically equal representation to each party, depending on how many seats they’ve won in the chamber. And also Democrats have an extraordinary amount of new leverage because of their gains in the elections, so they’ve got some pretty — they’re holding a pretty good deck of cards, because they’ve got the ability to block all kinds of other important Senate business if Republicans don’t accommodate them in some way.

AMY GOODMAN: The House and Senate are returning today. Let’s talk about this unprecedented Senate, the first 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats in history.

JEFF EARL: It’s certainly the first one in more than a hundred years. I think there might have been one in the late 1800s, but there’s definitely no clear precedents on how the place is going to run. And in the past, there’s definitely been no — there’s never been any sort of power-sharing arrangement that actually led to co-chairmanships in the United States Senate. There have been some similar arrangements to that in state legislatures.

AMY GOODMAN: Hatch and Leahy for the Judiciary Committee, what are they talking about — Hatch the Republican, Leahy the Democrat?

JEFF EARL: Well, all of the Republican senators came back to town and had a meeting with their leadership yesterday. And they all seemed to be singing basically from the same page in this: they want — at least for now, they want to let their leader, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, negotiate this arrangement with the minority, and that’s led by Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

I think they realize that if a bunch of different senators are out there advocating slightly different arrangements for their committees, it’s going to make it even harder for Lott to negotiate the best deal he can negotiate. So on that committee and on some of the others, for now, I think senators are going to try to not get into the thick of this too much.

But definitely what we can say is that on some key committees, like Judiciary, like the Senate Finance Committee, which does taxes, and some others, it’s very important to have some kind of a majority for Republicans. They feel that unless they’ve got at least a one-seat edge, they can’t run the place.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how it works. I mean, you have 50-50 — fifty Republicans and fifty Democrats — finally determined by Maria Cantwell, who just won in Washington state and beat out a longtime senator, Slade Gorton. But still, the Republicans have the edge — why?

JEFF EARL: Well, there’s a couple reasons. When we talk about 50-50, we’re operating under the assumption, which, as you know, is not yet a certainty, that Bush will be in the White House, George Bush, and that Dick Cheney will be his vice president. Now under the Constitution, when there’s a tie vote in the Senate, no matter what the makeup of the Senate is, the vice president gets to cast the tie-breaking vote. So even if it were to be a 50/50 Senate, Dick Cheney would be able to come down to the Capitol and break any of those ties.

And the presumption that Republicans are operating under is that he could also break ties on procedural matters. And that seems to be what the arcane rules of the Senate dictate. So when they reorganize, the new Congress, as they do in January, they’ll pass some procedural resolutions setting the place up. And if it came to that, Republicans would have the edge.

However, the way the Senate operates, the minority has a lot of power to slow things down. And what Democrats have insinuated is that if the Republicans don’t cut a deal that they consider to be fair, they will block that resolution, they’ll keep it from going through, and they will basically wreak all kinds of havoc in the Senate. So it’s going to be a high stakes negotiation.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Earl, speaking to us from the Capitol, reporter for National Journal’s Congress Daily. Explain what’s happening with Joe Lieberman, both a Connecticut senator and the Democratic vice presidential hopeful.

JEFF EARL: Well, you’re right. There is another scenario here. And that is that if some of these court rulings, final court rulings, go the right way, Al Gore could be the president. And if he is the president, Joe Lieberman would be the vice president. And Mr. Lieberman elected not to give up his Connecticut Senate seat.

So if he was reelected simultaneously to that seat, what would happen would be, if he assumes the vice presidency, that would create a vacancy. And the governor of Connecticut, who is a Republican, would get to name his replacement. So that would actually shift the Senate balance to 51-49.

Now Democrats are still in a pretty strong position here, because they still picked up four seats and they’re going to still negotiate for a greater representation on committees. But they’ve got no claim to try and co-chair committees.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the House, the kind of legislation that’s going to be determined right now, what — you’ve got something like five appropriations bills that have to be voted on?

JEFF EARL: Yeah, there’s a handful of appropriations bills still hanging out there. These are the ones that were supposed to have been passed by October to fund programs for the current fiscal year. So they’re still hanging out there. And these are some pretty substantial programs, including the bills that fund the Labor Department and the Education Department and a lot of healthcare funding. So Congress was unable to come to final agreement on those before the elections. So what the leaders decided was that, you know, it wasn’t going to get done, because the environment was just too political. So they bumped it over 'til now, the idea being that there might be a little more political certainty. What we've gotten instead is an even murkier situation, where we don’t quite know who the president is and we don’t know — quite know how the Senate’s going to run next year. So it’s unclear whether they’re going to be able to work all this out.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Again, Jeff Earl, reporter for the National Journal’s Congress Daily, speaking to us from the Capitol.

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