In an institution where trust is the glue that binds, Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) has a problem: some of his senatorial colleagues don't trust him.
McClure's problem became visible on the Senate floor last week when it took him hours to get agreement to begin debate on a revision of federal irrigation law that will benefit big farmers in the West.
At least five "holds" had been placed on the irrigation bill by senators who objected to its being called up for consideration. Part of it was because of substance, part retaliation, part distrust.
Such a personal reaction is unusual in the Senate. Although members routinely disagree on issues, they do so in faith that their points of view and their legislative proposals will get fair hearings.
McClure's difficulties, according to various senators and staff aides, stem from his leadership on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which he became chairman when Republicans took control of the Senate last year.
"He plays games with the committee and tries to be Mr. Nice Guy," said one senator who declined to let his name be used. "But he's a little too slick. You can be the toughest kind of fighter in this place, but you better be honest."
The chairman's style, as well as that of his hard-charging chief counsel, Charles A. Trabandt, is criticized increasingly in private by committee members. Trabandt, a longtime McClure aide, is known derisively as "Senator Trabandt" and "the Prince of Darkness."
McClure, in an interview last week, professed not to know about any incipient mutiny on his committee. "If there are mumblings and grumblings, I haven't heard them," he said. "I can understand why Chuck Trabandt is not well-liked. Some people find him to be too competent."
The latest episode stirring discontent occurred in May when McClure, guiding a nuclear-waste disposal bill to passage on the floor, asked unanimous consent to add several "technical" or clarifying amendments.
On McClure's word that the amendments were not substantive, no one objected and the prosposals were adopted by voice vote. Afterward, it became clear that McClure's "clarifying" language had the effect of knocking out seven states' laws restricting nuclear power-plant construction.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who is zealous about nuclear safety but is not a member of McClure's committee, was furious. He informed Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) that he would henceforth object to automatic floor action on all Energy Committee bills until he could examine them and determine they contained no ringers.
In a June letter to Byrd, Leahy described McClure's nuclear-waste gambit as "a very serious violation of Senate comity."
Since then, Leahy has delayed action on several committee measures until he determined they were what McClure advertised them to be. Leahy confirmed that he had sent the letter, but indicated he didn't care to discuss it.
McClure said he was unaware of the Leahy letter. He said he had had no indication that the Vermont Democrat was angry about his handling of the nuclear-waste amendments. "I didn't know Senator Leahy was that kind of guy," he said.
McClure insisted that he had misled no one on the amendments. "I regret that people say they were surprised. In my mind, it was a clarification," he said. "Some members hadn't seen that, and maybe they are embarrassed now because of that."
That explanation is off base, said another senator. "If you say you've got a 'technical' amendment, it had better be a technical amendment," he said. "And you better not lie to a fellow senator. . . . This thing is not the subject of a lot of conversation around here, but a look or a glance tells you what's on members' minds."
Leahy was one of the members who blocked McClure's effort to bring up his committee's revised version of the Reclamation Act of 1902, under which federally subsidized irrigation water is provided to farmers in the West.
Others were Sens. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), and James J. Exon (D-Neb.), who objected on grounds of substance. Committee member Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who was reportedly bitter over McClure's refusal to hold hearings on a Bumpers bill that would require competitive bidding on all onshore federal oil and gas leases, was also in opposition.
Bumpers removed his objections to the reclamation bill after McClure agreed to allow two hours of floor debate on the Bumpers oil and gas proposal as an amendment to reclamation--even though the two issues are not related.
The Energy Committee, then under Democratic control, held hearings on Bumpers' bill and approved it in late 1980. No Senate action was taken, however, when time ran out on the 96th Congress. McClure, who opposes the bill, has declined to give it a hearing in the 97th Congress.
"We've had hearings before . . . ad nauseum . . . endlessly," McClure said. "Just because Senator Bumpers wants hearings doesn't mean we should have them. It is a question of time. We've got a certain agenda we have to accommodate."
Another hold was put on the reclamation bill by Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), the only member who voted against the controversial measure while it was in committee. Metzenbaum was prepared to filibuster the bill on the floor until he could extract from McClure a promise of time to propose amendments.
Under the time agreement, when the bill comes up on July 14, Metzenbaum still will be able to filibuster by calling up one amendment after another if he chooses. He declined recently to discuss his plans.
But, according to sources, Metzenbaum is another of the committee members rankling at McClure's chairmanship. Metzenbaum has blocked another committee-approved bill from the floor for several months because of his unhappiness.
That measure involves federal oil-shale leases, which Metzenbaum insists should be granted only on competitive bids. McClure reportedly pushed a different version through the committee when Metzenbaum was absent and could offer no amendments. In retaliation, Metzenbaum is objecting to floor consideration of the bill until he is assured a chance to offer amendments.
A McClure move last year to expedite the appointment of Department of Energy general counsel R. Tenney Johnson, about whom conflict-of-interest questions had been raised, provoked similar steps by Metzenbaum. In that instance, he threatened a filibuster unless McClure agreed to a second day of hearings to get into the conflict questions.
McClure's series of contretemps over committee business led one member to say, "There are four or five senators that all of us on both sides of the aisle are concerned about, and McClure is one of them."