Trial Has Yet to Dent Senate Business
By Helen Dewar
But a long trial could seriously delay work on important legislation and poison the the atmosphere for the bipartisan cooperation that will be necessary to pass it, according to senators of both parties.
So far, said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), "it's not displacing much except for foreign trips."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) agreed. "It's not damaging yet in our ability to do our business," he said. "I think we can handle it."
Even so, there are likely to be at least some delays in critical start-up activities, such as hearings that have been scheduled over the next few weeks on budget, trade, education and health care issues. Some hearings, such as one planned for mid-January on Year 2000 computer problems, have already been postponed. Hearings planned by the Budget and Finance committees for next month also could be affected.
Aware that a reprise of last year's legislative gridlock could prove politically dangerous, the Senate Republican leadership yesterday began two days of closed-door meetings on how to gear up the legislative machinery even as the trial is consuming most of its working hours – a task that many Democrats saw as a congressional version of "Mission Impossible."
Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) tapped several Republicans to "see what windows of opportunity we have to get things done and make sure those windows are filled," said Republican Policy Committee Chairman Larry E. Craig (Idaho).
During their conference yesterday, Republican senators were also warned by one of the party's top pollsters that they need to produce legislatively. "Her message was that there are certain issues that are very important to the American people and we need to address them – Social Security, education, tax cuts. . . . We have to do a better job communicating our message," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine). "Very simply, the message was we ought to have a message in all aspects of policy," said Craig.
No one knows how long the trial will take, and senators of both parties warned there could be serious, permanent damage to Congress' agenda for the next two years if the trial lasts beyond the first or second week of February, particularly if it starts threatening budget deadlines.
"A short trial cuts into legislative business; a long trial would devastate it," Senate Minority Whip Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday.
The damage could be especially serious if the trial disrupts the fragile bipartisan comity that was established by Republicans and Democrats last week in setting the ground rules for the proceedings, senators said.
As part of the continuing debate over whether the trial should be expanded to include live testimony from witnesses, Democrats tend to stress the risks of damage to the legislative agenda, while Republicans tend to minimize it.
"Lots of work that needs to be done will not get done. We're going to be stymied. We're just going to be sitting there doing nothing," said Reid.
But Craig noted that the Senate convened Jan. 6 instead of waiting until the president's State of the Union message Jan. 19 only because of the trial and contended that it is therefore ahead of the game. "My guess is that, come mid-February, we will have more of the people's business done by doing this than we might have had in a normal year," he told reporters.
During yesterday's GOP conference, Republican leaders said they would introduce their top 10 bills for the year next week, urged other members to begin submitting legislation and said committees should try to hold as many hearings and organizational meetings as possible during mornings when the Senate is not tied up in the trial.
Many committee chairmen are already planning to do just that, including Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose work is critical to passing spending bills on time – something that Congress failed to do last year.
But the Senate has only six days with free mornings before Jan. 22, when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is presiding over the trial, will no longer have court business to conduct before noon, according to Senate sources. After that, the Senate may convene the trial in the morning, squeezing out morning hearings.
Some Republicans have suggested that the Senate could free up its mornings for legislative business if the trial stretches out into February. But Democrats indicated they would object on grounds that the Senate should go full-bore to complete the trial as soon as possible.
Staff writer Eric Pianin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company