The Senate agreed yesterday to make its radio and television debut under streamlined rules aimed at shaping up its image without altering its basic character.
The vote was 67 to 21.
Under an agreement painstakingly hammered out over the last few days by leaders of both parties, the Senate will experiment with live, gavel-to-gavel television coverage of its proceedings from June 1 to July 15. Radio coverage will begin almost immediately.
After a squabble that for a time threatened to block passage of the measure, the Senate also agreed to vote July 29 on whether to permit coverage on a permanent basis, allowing a two-week review period, as demanded by some Democrats.
To keep from both boring and baffling its audience, the Senate will also tighten some of its procedural rules, including putting new limits on filibusters.
Under the most important change, the limit on debate following cloture will be reduced from 100 hours to 30 hours, a modification of earlier plans to limit post-cloture debate to 20 hours and increase the number of votes required to invoke cloture.
But in order to win the support of senators who feared that too much efficiency would destroy the Senate as a sanctuary for debate, dissent and even delay, architects of the compromise abandoned a proposal to prohibit a favorite tactic of filibustering procedural motions and another proposal to make it easier to block nongermane amendments.
The House has allowed radio and TV coverage since 1979, but the Senate, fond of boasting of itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body," balked for years out of fear that the camera would force it to abandon some of its cherished peculiarities. Among them is a proclivity for almost endless delay through quorum calls, filibusters and other quaint customs that do not make for good television.
But the lure of the camera proved irresistible. After months of pushing by former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), the cause was taken up by Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and then Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who finally negotiated the compromise.
During yesterday's debate, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) tried unsuccessfully to get the Senate to allow camera coverage only when it had negotiated time agreements limiting debate, which require unanimous consent.
"Unlimited debate . . . is not a pretty thing to watch on television," said Johnston. "It is a messy, untidy spectacle to watch, but I think vital to the nation."
But Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), noting the Senate's lapses of attention, order and continuity, said it should not try to screen out its unattractive moments. "Let 'em see it all, the way we're carrying on here," he said.
Johnston's proposal was defeated 61 to 30.
The rules as approved preclude camera-panning of the chamber to show empty seats or drowsing senators, prevent use of film in campaigns and prohibit noting a senator's absence from committees while the Senate is on television -- a sore point because of exploitation of committee absenteeism in recent campaigns.
Also rejected -- in a brief episode that would have made comic if not gripping television -- was a proposal from Sen. Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.) to restate an existing but unenforced rule that requires senators to vote at their seats. They normally vote by words, nods and hand signals from a cluster at the well of the chamber.
While enforcing this rule might not change the character of the Senate, it could alter the outcome of votes, Dole noted, because instead of "twisting a few arms" in the well, leaders would have to "run from desk to desk."
If the idea is to let the audience know who the players are, senators could start wearing numbers like football players, suggested Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who then started giving a mock play-by-play account of a Senate vote.