WASHINGTON -- The Senate began yesterday its attempt to change the Hatch Act, a 54-year-old law that restricts the activities of federal workers in political campaigns.
But the floor debate on the bill, which could stretch into next week, could attract amendments on two controversial issues that have no connection to Hatch Act change.
Two Republican senators are rumored to be planning to introduce amendments that would preserve the ban on gays in the military and renew a patent for an insignia that includes a Confederate flag.
Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm could challenge President Clinton's proposal to lift the ban on openly gay enlistees in the armed forces. Larry Neal, the senator's spokesman, would neither confirm nor deny the possibility that Mr. Gramm would introduce a gay-ban amendment.
However, gay-rights advocates say senior Pentagon officials told them in a meeting yesterday that Defense Secretary Les Aspin will recommend to President Clinton that homosexuals be allowed to serve in the military as long as they do not make public or private declarations of their sexual orientation.
Mr. Gramm's amendment could prompt a wide open debate.
North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms reportedly is considering an amendment to renew a patent for the insignia long used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., a black, successfully persuaded the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the renewal application because the Confederate flag is a symbol that blacks consider racially insensitive.
Mr. Helms' office acknowledged the senator might bring this issue to the Hatch Act debate.
The two side issues could -- Democratic hopes for a peaceful resolution of their long-desired change in the Hatch Act.
"This legislation would allow our nation's civil servants to participate voluntarily as private citizens in the nation's political process," said Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, the chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, who is championing the bill on the Senate floor.
"It would eliminate many of the complicated, restrictive and confusing rules which inhibit the political activities and conduct of federal employees," Mr. Glenn said.
Federal worker unions would like to see the bill move painlessly to the president's desk.
"We believe the reform that's going to take place will protect employees from coercion so that no one is forced to be politically active" by a superior, said David Dingee, spokesman for the National Federation for Federal Employees.
That goal might be more easily achieved this year, he said, when the nation is not focused on another presidential election. "As a federal employee, you're supposed to carry out the plans of each agency, but no one is going to be forced to go to the Clinton campaign office and stuff envelopes," Mr. Dingee added.
Delaware Sen. William Roth, the leading Republican on the bill, will likely offer amendments to keep Hatch Act restrictions on federal employees in national security and law enforcement, or who are in the upper ranks at certain agencies.
"Our organization doesn't really feel that is necessary," said Diane Witiak, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees. She described Mr. Roth's possible restrictions as a solution for a system that isn't broken.
"Many federal employees just aren't going to want to [actively campaign after hours] because they're like every other American," she said. "They're apathetic about the political process."
Indeed, Ms. Witiak said her organization would take no firm stand on the major differences between the House and Senate bills when they go to conference committee, particularly House provisions that would allow workers to run for office or raise funds for candidates. "We could live with either of those," she added.
Barring the success of the rumored amendments, President Clinton has similar comfort with the bills as they emerged from their respective House and Senate committees. He has pledged to sign whatever comes out of this summer's conference committee.