WASHINGTON -- The Senate began debate yesterday on legislation that would reshape relations between federal and local governments by making it harder for Washington to impose rules on cities and states without paying the costs.
But the opening debate took longer than the Republican majority had planned, as some senators cautioned against hasty votes on something they did not yet fully understand. As a result, Democrats won some time to develop several amendments that would limit the measure's scope.
"There is still some confusion, frankly, among a lot of members as to exactly how it will work," said Sen. William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican.
The pace of the debate is important, because opponents of the bill -- such as environmental groups, which contend that it would deprive the public of much federal regulatory protection -- are fighting the odds to shore up resistance. A solid majority of the Senate has already agreed to sponsor the bill.
The thrust of the bill has wide support in the House as well, and Republican leaders are trying to push it through both chambers in the next two weeks, in part to mollify governors and mayors who are worried that efforts to balance the federal budget will lead Washington to impose huge expenses on state and local governments.
The bill, long sought by many leaders in the cities, counties and states, is meant to establish a basic presumption against "unfunded mandates" -- unfinanced requirements like those in environmental and labor laws that apply equally to the public sector and the private sector, and like those in education and welfare laws that apply exclusively to state and local governments.
But despite the bill's intent to discourage new laws of this kind unless Congress first agrees to provide money to state and local governments for compliance, advocates and skeptics alike remain unsure exactly how it would work.
The questions go to the fundamental mechanisms of the bill: how to define the mandates (like wage standards, perhaps) that ought to be exempted, how to estimate mandates' costs accurately and how to prevent the new bill, if passed, from effectively precluding enactment of new environmental or other regulatory laws, the outcome the bill's opponents predict.
Under the legislation, whenever Congress from now on considers a bill that includes a new mandate, the Congressional Budget Office would produce a formal estimate of how much the mandate would cost local authorities, and Congress would provide the necessary money.
If those conditions were not met, a parliamentary objection could be lodged against the bill, requiring separate votes in the House and the Senate to override.
The measure has attracted broad support mainly by choosing a parliamentary procedure as its sole enforcement tool, an approach that deliberately leaves a loophole for Congress to impose unfunded mandates whenever it chooses.
To close that loophole a bit, Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, has suggested an amendment that would call for 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to waive the parliamentary barrier to new unfunded mandates. But Democrats and moderate Republicans say they will oppose such a move.
Democrats are proposing amendments that, among other things, would exclude from the bill's restrictions any federal mandate that applies to local governments in the same way that it applies to private businesses or individuals -- for example, requirements that they dispose of medical wastes safely.
That would restrict the bill's effects to strictly governmental functions, discouraging Congress from passing, for example, a bill expanding the public school year to all 12 months, unless the states were given the necessary money.
House committees have been drafting a separate version of the measure, to be taken up next week.