With tax cuts, a huge spending bill and possible war stacked up on its agenda, the Senate plunged yesterday into a paralyzing partisan fight over funding and office space for its committees.
It had taken the Senate only a week since it reconvened with upbeat pledges of bipartisan cooperation to return to the same old fractiousness with which it wound up its work last year.
Viewing the conflict through sharply different lenses, Republicans said the Democrats' tactics were "tantamount to an attempted coup," as Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) put it, while Democrats said they only wanted fairness in the distribution of about $50 million to run 20 Senate committees for the year.
Until the dispute is resolved and the Senate passes a new "organizing resolution" for its committees, new senators will not get committee assignments and Democrats will stay on as chairmen even though Republicans won control of the Senate in last November's elections.
As a result, hearings, including one scheduled for yesterday on the nomination of Tom Ridge to head the new Department of Homeland Security, were put off, apparently because the Bush administration did not want to testify before Democratic chairmen. Ridge was rescheduled for Friday. Delays are also threatened for action on spending bills left over from last year.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) attempted to speed the GOP takeover by filing a resolution dealing with committee chairmanships and Republican members but not funding. Democrats objected, and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said they would filibuster the proposal if necessary. Meanwhile, talks between Frist and Daschle were continuing, and Frist said last night they were "very, very close" to an agreement.
The whole thing was beginning to look like "sandbox silliness," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
"People will look at this and ask what in the world is going on," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). "The Senate ought to be able to organize itself."
It appeared the Senate itself might pay a price for its squabbling. Frist warned yesterday, as he has before, that the Senate will not be taking its customary mid-January recess next week unless it resolves its organizational dispute and deals with the 11 spending bills for the fiscal year that began last October. Chances of meeting those conditions appeared slim.
Until the last Congress, organizing resolutions were rather routine affairs, confirming the selection of new chairmen and appointment of new members. But the election of an evenly divided Senate in 2000 gave rise to a power-sharing arrangement under which committee funding was evenly split. When Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords left the GOP in mid-2001, giving Democrats control of the Senate by one vote, the funding division was changed only slightly in the Democrats' favor.
In the current dispute, Democrats argue that the funding division should reflect the existing 51 to 49 party breakdown in the Senate, just as it reflected the narrow split two years ago. Republicans say the majority party always got two-thirds of committee funds before the last Congress and that the Senate should return to this split.
Republicans quickly sought to cast the dispute in a broader light, accusing Democrats of trying to reverse the results of the November elections. "A shameful power grab," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).
The GOP circulated an e-mail summary of a Jan. 2 Democratic staff meeting and contended that it showed Democrats had plotted an impasse. Democrats said the e-mail simply stated the obvious: that a dispute was likely and delays were possible.
Many Democrats tried to change the subject to other issues, such as President Bush's tax cut proposals. Several of them, in a parody of the "Leave No Child Behind" school bill that Congress passed last year, referred to the tax measure as the "Leave No Millionaire Behind" bill.