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Senate Inches Closer to Deal on Organizing Resolution

Although the Nov. 5 elections put Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, the notoriously slow-moving Senate came one step closer to finally putting the results into effect Tuesday when Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) introduced an organizing resolution.

Until the resolution is passed, Senate committees remain under Democratic control, which has slowed GOP efforts to get cracking on President Bush’s legislative agenda.

Frist has threatened to cancel next week’s recess unless a deal is struck on the organizing resolution in the near term.

The resolution Frist offered is only a list of committee assignments, but a senior GOP aide said a deal could be struck as early as this afternoon to reorganize the panels.

Each side has very specific goals, none of which are mutually exclusive, the aide said. Democrats want enough money to keep existing committee staffers, while Republicans want a bigger piece of the pie.

Republicans hope that Frist and Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) will come to an unofficial compromise as to how to divvy up the money but don’t want to put the precise funding percentages into the current deal. They say the actual numbers can officially be put into place in the new biennial committee funding resolution. The current funding measure for panels expires Feb. 28.

But Democrats, heading into their weekly Caucus luncheon, said they prefer to have all the details included in the pending committee organizing resolution — expressing a fear that putting off that portion of the debate would leave them with less money in six weeks.

“It’s all going to have to be done at the same time,” said Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Daschle said Democrats would fillibuster the resolution if forced to but that he still believed an agreement could be reached Tuesday.

As the majority party, under Senate rules, can command up to two-thirds of operational funding, a disagreement over how to split the money has prevented the Senate from working this week.

That prompted Frist on Monday to threaten his colleagues with having to stay through next week’s scheduled Martin Luther King Jr. recess to finish an omnibus appropriations package wrapping up last year’s work, and other matters, unless the impasse is resolved.

Senators spent most of the morning staking out their positions in the negotiations.

Reid said Democrats want a funding ratio that basically mirrors the 51-49 split in the Senate.

“We’re willing to take what we were given last time,” Reid said from the floor, alluding to the agreement that governed the Senate at the beginning of the 107th Congress when the chamber was evenly split.

Republicans, meanwhile, urged Democrats to strike a deal quickly.

“We took our blow when Senator [Jim] Jeffords [I-Vt.] made his switch … but we did it and we did it swiftly,” said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

After Frist took to the floor to implore the Senate to pass the resolution immediately so that work could resume, Reid said he understood his colleague’s frustration.

“We were in the same place a year and a half ago,” he said. “It took us six weeks” to reach a compromise, he said, adding that he hoped it wouldn’t take as long this time.

“Two hours ago I introduced a resolution that does one simple thing — recognizes that Republicans won the election,” Frist said, explaining that the Senate cannot continue working without its passage.

Adding that all Congresses prior to the 107th, regardless of how evenly split they were, divided the money two-thirds for the majority, one-third for the minority, Frist said Democrats were ignoring precedent.

Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) upped the ante, calling Democrats’ unwillingness to capitulate “tantamount to an attempted coup.”

When told that, Daschle chuckled and said: “What is fair is fair ? [Splitting the funds 51 percent to 49 percent] was good enough last year; it ought to be good enough this year.”

Senators then debated the issue into the evening.

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