Even during less pressured times, a single member can jam the gears of the Senate's legislative machinery to force action on a favored cause. But now, as Congress struggles to deal with must-pass legislation and get home for the holidays, the Senate is becoming a demolition derby.
On issues from dairy cows to satellite television, senators are threatening to hold up action on everything in sight--even the adjournment resolution--as leverage to win concessions from the White House, congressional leaders or reluctant colleagues.
Hard as it may be for Congress to work out a budget deal with the White House, these issues--and perhaps others--could wind up being the show-stoppers for the Senate as it attempts to enact the spending compromises and adjourn for the year later this week.
Perhaps the most serious of the threats comes from Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who has served notice he will hold up most pending legislation, including spending bills, unless House and Senate leaders agree not to try any last-minute maneuvers to include dairy legislation that he opposes. Kohl is normally an accommodating fellow, but there are limits when it comes to cows and cheese in Wisconsin.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) moved to block a spending bill to win more money for Louisiana and other coastal states from proposed funding for land and water conservation efforts financed by revenue from offshore oil and gas production.
Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has gone a step further, threatening to hold up "everything on the legislative calendar," according to an aide, unless heavily hurricane-damaged North Carolina gets more disaster relief.
Employing similarly tough tactics, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) appeared to have won his fight to strip a loan guarantee provision for rural service out of a bill to expand satellite television coverage, in return for hearings next year on other means of assuring access in rural areas. But now Democrats, especially those from rural states, are vowing to block adjournment until the Senate acts on the whole bill, including the loan guarantees.
SENATE SALARIES: The average salary of Washington-based staff in Senate offices was $45,223 this year, according to a study scheduled for release today by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation.
As might be expected, chiefs of staff were the highest paid, with an average annual salary of $116,573. Salaries for legislative directors averaged $91,483 and legislative assistants were paid $48,276.
Overall, however, the average salary lagged behind the executive branch, where the average Washington area federal worker earned $59,745, the study said.
Senate staff pay also compared poorly with comparably educated workers nationwide. Senate staff with bachelor's degrees earned 32.5 percent less than workers with bachelor's degrees nationally. Senate staff with master's and doctorate degrees earned 16 percent and 33 percent less than their counterparts across the country, the study said.
The study did not draw any conclusions about such pay gaps, but noted that turnover remains a common problem in the personal offices of senators: About 50 percent of Senate staff members have less than one year's experience in their job.
By large margins, the study said, the Senate personal staffs are younger--an average age of 33.8 years--than employees in the national work force. Sixty-three percent were single and 70 percent had no children, the study said.
The study said the pay of female staff members declined when compared with the pay of men, reversing a six-year trend. Female staff earned 88 percent as much as male Senate staff in 1997, while in 1999, women earned 83 percent as much.
Although Senate staff pay continued to lag behind the executive branch, the study stressed that the gap between the two narrowed for the first time this decade. Rick Shapiro, the foundation's executive director, attributed that slight shift to the high demand for white-collar workers, a strong economy and loosening budgets on Capitol Hill.
The study was based on a survey of 54 Senate offices and covered 1,855 full-time jobs. It did not look at Senate committee pay, which is generally assumed to be higher because numerous committees employ more lawyers and older, more experienced staff.
THE WEEK AHEAD: Both chambers return Tuesday to deal almost exclusively with spending bills and House-Senate conference reports. The House, which meets in a pro forma session today in which no votes will be taken, may also consider a bill to raise the minimum wage, and the Senate may do further work on legislation to overhaul bankruptcy laws.