In Senate, debate yes, filibuster no


WASHINGTON -- The Senate filibuster -- a tradition jealously guarded by legislators of all political stripes -- has gotten a bad name in this new action age: Now it's called gridlock.

That time-honored procedural device by which minorities have made their mark and Jimmy Stewart's fictional Mr. Smith became a movie hero is now so frowned upon no one will admit using it.

Neither the conservative Senate Democrats who took control of the Senate floor last week to pressure President Clinton into a compromise on his $16.3 billion stimulus package nor the Republicans who are now talking their way through a series of killer amendments want anyone to think they are engaged in obstructive delaying tactics.

"It's never been our intention to obstruct the president or to block the president," Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations committee, said yesterday as he was negotiating an agreement that would end the GOP talkathon.

Mr. Hatfield was particularly horrified lest anyone think the Republicans were trying to "tie the president's hands" before he goes to Vancouver this weekend for a summit with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

"It's not our agenda" to prevent Mr. Clinton from achieving his goal of winning enactment of both his stimulus package and the blueprint for his proposed budget before he meets the Russian leader, Mr. Hatfield said.

The senator's concern illustrates the dilemma of the president's Senate critics.

They have the power to hold up Mr. Clinton's stimulus package so long it wouldn't matter anymore.

It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. The Democrats have only 57 senators, and five of them strayed three times to support Republican amendments that Clinton allies said would have been devastating to the president's proposal.

But after all the talk of gridlock during the election campaign last year, opponents of the bill fear voters may be too eager for some kind of action to pay much attention to the details of the legislation.

"I think it's a hard call," said Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, when asked how far the GOP would go to prevent what it considers unnecessary spending that would add to the budget deficit. "If we force the Democrats to take out the pork by going into extended debate, do we look like we are trying to to prevent the president from putting his economic program into effect?"

President Clinton has manipulated his opposition well by knowing when deal and when to fight.

For example, Mr. Clinton helped secure passage of his budget blueprint by deleting proposals to raise federal grazing fees and to impose a new 12.5 percent royalty on mining on federal lands.

By taking those items out of the broader budget blueprint, already passed by both houses and due for a final vote this week, Mr. Clinton bought himself an early victory for the larger issues at stake.

On the stimulus package, the president has been much more reluctant to yield.

Democratic Sens. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and David L. Boren of Oklahoma talked much of Thursday, stalled much of Friday and negotiated by telephone all weekend, before they finally elicited a letter from Mr. Clinton Monday night promising to address their concerns.

The two senators wanted to hold up spending of about half of the stimulus package until enactment of the legislation containing tax increases and spending cuts that are part of a five-year plan to cut the deficit by about $500 billion.

Mr. Clinton wrote that if the deficit reduction targets were not met in that legislation he would send up new legislation to do the job.

The Republicans considered that a meaningless concession on an amendment that wouldn't have accomplished much.

But it was enough for Mr. Boren and Mr. Breaux, who had flinched at the charge that they were filibustering the new president of their own party.

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