As the first session of the 106th Congress draws to a close, the Senate remains deadlocked over scores of presidential nominations, raising the prospect of more delay in filling judicial vacancies and a rash of recess appointments to other jobs if the impasse is not broken in the next few days.
By late last week, the Senate had confirmed 25 of President Clinton's 70 judicial choices for the year, a sharp reduction from the 66 confirmations recorded at this time last year and far less than the number normally approved during the 1980s and early 1990s.
The immediate cause of the current stand-off is objections raised by conservative Republicans to the nominations of Californians Marsha L. Berzon and Richard A. Paez to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Paez's nomination has been pending for 3 1/2 years, Berzon's nearly 2 years. Democrats have made their nominations a cause celebre, claiming Republicans are especially slow in dealing with nominees who are women or minorities. Republicans deny any discrimination.
In an attempt to force Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to move on the two California nominations, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) took a hostage of her own last month: Tupelo, Miss., Mayor Glenn L. McCullough Jr., Lott's choice to serve as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority. No Paez and Berzon, no McCullough, she said.
Since then, Lott has tried to move a number of nominations (without Paez and Berzon), only to run into objections from the Democratic side of the aisle.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said there is a "reasonable chance" of working out an agreement to vote on the Californians next year "if the Democrats will cooperate." But it has been blocked so far by Republicans, according to Democrats.
BACK TO BIPARTISANSHIP: After a year of deepening partisan divisions over foreign policy on Capitol Hill, cooperation across party lines among internationalist-minded senators appears to be on the rise.
In one example of this, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), who opposed the nuclear test ban treaty that the Senate rejected last month, is pushing for a bipartisan commission to help come up with modifications that could lead to an approvable treaty. Warner hopes to get some action before Congress adjourns for the year.
In another case, a group of senators, led by Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), senior members of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees respectively, are spearheading an informal bipartisan effort to work on problems affecting U.S.-Russian relations.
From discussions during a trip to Russia last November and more talks over a spaghetti dinner hosted by Levin a couple of weeks ago, Levin, Lugar and other senators of both parties--ultimately 15 to 20 in all--plan to meet monthly to explore problem areas and try to come up with ways to improve relations.
"The idea is to get a bipartisan group to spend some serious time on the major issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship in an effort to produce a more effective, stable relationship," including cooperation to curb weapons proliferation, Levin said.
Lugar said he also wants to try to improve communication between lawmakers and the White House on Russia-related issues. "It's not really clear what administration policies are and it's difficult for the administration to find what the Senate supports," Lugar said.
NEW ETHICS CHAIRMAN: It is not the most coveted job in the Senate, but a chairmanship is a chairmanship, and now it belongs to first-term Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who will be taking over from Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) as head of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.
Roberts, currently a member of the ethics panel, moved up to the chairmanship after Smith traded it in for the top job on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which became vacant when Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) died late last month.
The ethics chairmanship changes hands as rapidly as members can escape its unpleasant responsibilities, which include investigating and disciplining colleagues. Roberts had no competition for the job.
THE WEEK AHEAD: Both chambers are struggling to wind up work for the year by Wednesday, the day before Veterans Day. Their main preoccupation will be the spending bills that must be passed in a form that will be signed by Clinton before they can adjourn. Also, the Senate--and possibly the House--will consider a proposal to raise the minimum wage. The Senate will do so as part of a bill, already passed by the House, to overhaul bankruptcy laws.