Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) likes to keep the legislative trains running on time. But he's having trouble getting all the passengers on board at the same time.
His latest scheduling trial began last Monday when he tried--and failed--to enforce a modified five-day work week: late Monday through early Friday. He had scheduled a vote for 5:30 p.m. Monday but had to cancel it when a number of senators voted with their feet by staying home. The previous week, he noted, some senators told him they would not be available for votes on Tuesday morning, while others said they would be gone by noon Thursday.
"If it continues at this pace, we will have votes stacked in sequence on Wednesday afternoon at 3 o'clock, which would suit me fine, but I don't think it is a very good way to do business," he said.
Soon it appeared that a midweek vote-o-rama might not work either.
A vote had been planned for Tuesday, then rescheduled for Wednesday, on a bill to extend government-financed health benefits to disabled workers. But there was a problem: Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), perhaps the Senate's foremost champion of legislation to help the disabled, was in Europe with President Clinton.
Democrats wanted to delay the vote until Thursday so Harkin could be there. But Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who faces a tough reelection campaign next year, would not be available Thursday. So Lott ordered the vote for Wednesday, and the bill was passed, 99-0, with Harkin the only absentee. Lott's scheduling problems continued through Friday, when his patience was tried again by airport-bound senators.
The Senate has a long history of giving its leaders heartburn over scheduling. During the early 1980s, for instance, then-Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) used to say that running the Senate was like trying to herd cats. Many, including Lott, have threatened to call their colleagues' bluff by holding votes even if no one comes. But collegiality is the Senate's number one rule and even leaders defy it at their peril.
At week's end, Lott was still sticking by his earlier plan for late Monday and early Friday Senate votes. The all-aboard for this week's first vote is at 5:30 p.m. Monday--again.
CALL THE BANKROLL: Senators love to invoke the memory of illustrious predecessors, and Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) is no exception. But Feingold is not embarked on a fond trip down memory lane these days when he talks about Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette Sr. and his populist crusades of the early 1900s.
Borrowing a page from La Follette, Feingold announced last week that he is going to read publicly the "bankroll" of campaign contributions from special interests as bills that benefit them come before the Senate. He indicated he will start with bankruptcy, banking and appropriations bills and continue until Congress passes campaign finance legislation that he is co-sponsoring with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Feingold will not be naming names, as La Follette did in identifying colleagues who voted with powerful interests on railroad and other legislation. But many senators take umbrage at suggestions that money influences votes and are likely to bristle at Feingold--just as they do at McCain when he turns a spotlight on pork-barrel projects in spending bills.
HAMMER WATCH: When House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) spoke of the need for "God, not guns" before a group of preachers last week, he was undeterred when a car's horn began honking loudly in the background.
"That's obviously the devil," DeLay deadpanned, then continued with his speech, which was a big hit with the religious leaders who had trekked to Washington from New York.
"Can we consecrate him right now?" asked Melvin Walker, one of the preachers, referring to "Reverend DeLay."
THE WEEK AHEAD: The Senate plans to consider proposals to tighten nuclear security, inspired by reports of Chinese espionage, as part of a bill reauthorizing intelligence operations. Also on tap are appropriations bills and a proposal to restrict imports of steel.
The House has scheduled action on transportation spending, civil asset forfeiture and possibly a constitutional amendment permitting anti-flag-burning laws.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.