A Democratic proposal to weaken the stalling tactic, often blamed by critics for much of the recent stalemate on Capitol Hill, was soundly rejected by the Senate yesterday. The 76-19 vote came even as the GOP sought to advance its agenda for changing the way business is done in Washington -- and to find common ground in a meeting with President Clinton.
"There are those who undoubtedly will think this is a quixotic effort, that it is a kind of a romantic but unfeasible effort," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said in describing the first reform issue considered by the new GOP-led Senate. He and Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat from Iowa, pressed for speedy consideration of a change in the filibuster rules, despite a lack of support from the leadership of either party.
Mr. Harkin blamed the series of filibusters at the end of the last Congress for "provoking gridlock after gridlock, frustration, anger and despondency among the American people, wondering whether we can get anything done at all here in Washington."
Given the voters' demand for change in the last election, Mr. Lieberman said, "It is important now to make this effort to show that we have heard the message and that we are prepared to not only shake up the federal government but shake up the Congress."
It currently takes 60 votes, out of 100, to shut off a filibuster in the Senate, thus allowing a determined minority of 41 to block any action, which is what the Republicans did near the close of the last Congress. The Harkin-Lieberman proposal would have required 60 votes on a first attempt to cut off a filibuster, 57 on the second, 54 on a third and by the fourth attempt allow a simple majority to clear the way for debate to end.
Democrat Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the Senate's most senior member and master of its often arcane rules, led the floor opposition to weakening the filibuster, arguing that "unlimited debate is something we should never, never give away."
A total of 53 Republicans and 23 Democrats, including Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, voted to keep the filibuster intact. Nineteen senators, all Democrats, including Maryland's Paul S. Sarbanes, voted for the change.
Senate and House committees also began working yesterday on several other proposals in the GOP agenda -- a $200 billion package of tax cuts, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, and a measure to spare local governments from costly federal dictates.
Tax cuts discussed
The tax cuts were a key topic of discussion at a White House meeting yesterday morning between Mr. Clinton and congressional leaders of both parties.
Though Democratic leaders contend that the GOP cuts would mainly benefit wealthy taxpayers and worsen the federal budget deficit, Mr. Clinton told reporters that the Republicans assured him there would be no "bidding war" to reduce taxes without offsetting spending cuts.
"We can do a lot of business together for the benefit of the country." the president said of the new GOP leaders. "It's a different era with different ground rules. We are doing things differently. My job is to work with them."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the White House meeting "very, very positive" and later told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that he wants them to consider including Mr. Clinton's proposal for a middle-class tax cut in the GOP package.
"I don't think we have to reject something out of hand just because it comes from the president," Mr. Gingrich said as he outlined for the committee the tax and welfare reform proposals contained in the GOP "Contract with America."
But Rep. Sam M. Gibbons of Florida, the top-ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, questioned the likely cost of a tax cut. He pointed out to Mr. Gingrich that the Treasury Department recently estimated that the GOP tax package would cost $712 billion over 10 years.
Recalling the failure of Congress to make enough spending cuts offset the tax cuts proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Mr. Gibbons said, "I won't go down that road again."
Mr. Gingrich maintained that the estimates came from the same "socialist mentality bureaucrats" who thought higher sales taxes on boats, enacted a few years ago, would raise money. Instead, they actually caused a recession in the yachting industry and lost money for the government, he said.
If Democrats insist on relying on Treasury Department figures, Mr. Gingrich added, "I guess we'll have a big fight on the floor."
Buoyed by Wednesday's initial session, during which every item on the Republican's first-day reform agenda passed with strong bipartisan support, the new speaker said, "I do believe we can find honest estimates that we can broadly agree on" and reach agreement on the bill.
Also yesterday, the Senate began debate on a measure, similar to one approved unanimously early yesterday in the House, that would impose on Congress all the employment, civil rights and safety laws that apply to the rest of the country.
Likely to be 1st law enacted
That measure, which is likely to be the first law enacted by the new Congress, holds political appeal for members of both parties. Some supporters, such as Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, argue that there is a fairness issue because the measure would allow congressional employees to press their rights in court for the first time.
Others, such as Republican Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, believe this new requirement will make Congress more careful about the laws it passes, and perhaps lead it to pass fewer of them.
Last night, the Senate voted 52-39 along party lines to reject a Democratic attempt to add to the bill a prohibition against lawmakers receiving gifts from lobbyists. House Democrats made a similar attempt yesterday that also failed. Republican leaders on both sides say they are willing to take up the gift ban legislation later in the year but want to enact the congressional compliance law on its own.
Senate and House versions of the bill differ significantly in the amount of leeway granted to a newly created Office of Compliance that would enforce the law -- with the Senate measure spelling out the powers of the office much more specifically. A compromise must be worked out before the measure can be passed.