Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, casting himself as Horatius at the bridge and wielding embarrassment and parliamentary finesse as his primary weapons, set out yesterday to block passage of the first of 10 "rip-offs, bailouts or sweetheart packages" that he says special-interest lobbies will try to steer through the lame-duck session.
The Ohio Democrat's first target was S995, the antitrust equal enforcement act, which contains a highly controversial and massively lobbied provision that could save a handful of large corporations already found guilty of price fixing hundreds of millions of dollars in potential damage judgments.
Sporting a lapel button that read, "How do price fixers spell relief? S995," Metzenbaum chastised the Republican leadership for even bringing such a bill to the floor.
"This bill doesn't belong here today," the Senate gadfly said. "It is wasting the time of this body and insulting to the American people . . . You don't have to be a genius to know there have been more high-priced lobbyists on both sides of this bill than on any other measure before the U.S. Senate."
Metzenbaum and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) were sufficiently persuasive in their filibuster threat that the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), filed a motion for cloture just two hours after the measure was brought up.
That vote is expected on Thursday. But if they lose the cloture vote, Metzenbaum has a backup strategy.
"We'll engage in a post-cloture filibuster by amendment," he said. "That ought to keep them tied up until Friday or Monday, and by then we're already through with the first week of a three-week session . This ought to be a cake walk."
Metzenbaum is sanguine about his prospects for blocking virtually all of the special-interest bills in the short session. "Time is on our side," he explained.
Certainly it is with him on the price-fixing measure, which has not yet even passed through the committee stage on the House side. The main thrust of the bill, which has broad support in the business community, is designed to remove an adjudicated price fixer from the threat of facing a triple damage judgment based not only on his own wrongdoing but on the wrongdoing of his co-conspirators as well.
As originally introduced the measure was to apply only to price-fixing suits brought after its enactment. But in response to intense lobbying from the Georgia Pacific, Weyerhaeuser, Willamette and Milliken companies, Thurmond pushed through an amendment in committee that would allow judges to apply the bill's provisions to pending cases.
All four companies have been found guilty in major price-fixing trials. The retroactive application could save Milliken up to $14 million and the other three a total of up to $375 million in potential damage judgments.
The lobbying campaign by those companies so far has cost more than $1 million and been waged by such luminaries as former attorneys general Griffin Bell and Benjamin Civiletti, and former Senate Judiciary Committee members Sam Ervin and Birch Bayh.
Support for it has broken down on geographic rather than political or ideological lines. Thurmond, for instance, represents a state where Milliken is based. His fellow conservative, Sen. John East (R-N.C.), opposes it, however, because Burlington Industries, the company that hopes to collect from Milliken, is based in his state.
The other bills that Metzenbaum has placed on "hold" and stands ready to filibuster include: S2000, a bill to tighten up federal consumer bankruptcy laws; S1484, a bill to open up 320 billion barrels of oil shale to the oil industry without requiring royalty payments, and S2784/2821, a bill that would provide certain antitrust immunity for the National Football League.