The Senate, conceding that it must sharpen its image for belated entry into the television age, began debate yesterday on whether to revamp its hallowed, often-halting proceedings to accommodate gavel-to-gavel camera coverage.
It did so in typical Senate fashion, with a 2 1/2-hour quorum call -- a delaying tactic that emptied the chamber except for Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), confined to a wheelchair but working at his desk.
After several hours' debate, punctuated by points of order, hints of a filibuster and complaints of being detained from speaking engagements, the Senate wound up with a heated discussion of how it would go about discussing the issue again next week, then recessed for a three-day weekend.
It could be a "long, long summer" before the issue is resolved, said Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a leader in the fight to televise floor proceedings.
At issue is how -- perhaps whether -- the Senate can make itself lively enough for not-even-prime-time TV without destroying its traditional role as a deliberative body and a counterbalance to the House.
"Just how silly are we going to look?" asked Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who wants the cameras shut off when the Senate is not operating under time restrictions. "We're not going to look good."
The House has allowed gavel-to-gavel coverage of its proceedings since 1979. But the Senate, despite a strong push by former senator Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) when he was majority leader, has balked, in part because of worries about how it would look on the tube.
In an attempt to perk up procedures for TV, Byrd, Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and others want far-reaching rules changes that could drastically curtail if not end the Senate's ability to talk -- or stall -- an issue to death. Changes would, among other things, restrict filibusters and make it easier to curb nongermane amendments.
Between April 15 and July 25, the Senate would experiment with live radio coverage and closed-circuit TV limited to Capitol Hill. Another vote would be required to make the rules changes and radio-TV coverage permanent.
Several of the changes had been pushed earlier by senators who said that rules intended to foster debate and protect minority viewpoints were becoming tools of obstruction, tying up the chamber for days at a time.
Dole and others contended that it would be difficult if not impossible to adopt the TV proposal without changing the rules. They indicated they hope, but are not sure, that linkage of the issues will produce a majority.
But others, such as Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.), argued that some of his "resourceful" colleagues were using the rules changes -- many highly controversial -- as a back-door way of keeping cameras out.
One of the most significant rules proposals would make it more difficult to limit debate by invoking cloture, while making it easier to end debate once cloture was invoked.
To invoke cloture now requires 60 votes. The new rules would require two-thirds of those present and voting (67 if all 100 senators are present) to achieve cloture on legislation and at least 67 votes for cloture on rules changes. Cloture now limits debate to 100 hours; the change would reduce this to 20 hours.
The changes also would forbid filibusters on motions to proceed to consideration of legislation, another obstructionist tactic.
Perhaps the most controversial change, intended mainly to satisfy Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.), a staunch foe of Senate TV, involves germaneness -- the relevancy of amendments.
It now is difficult to knock out an amendment on germaneness grounds, and important legislation often is passed as an amendment to a measure dealing with a different issue. The change would establish a germaneness rule that could be waived only by a two-thirds vote.