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Senate Finally Strikes a Deal

In what may become known as the 60-49 compromise, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) reached a deal Wednesday on how to reorganize the chamber, finally clearing the way for a GOP takeover of committees.

In a strange twist to the funding conundrum that will allow both sides to claim victory, Republicans hailed the fact that they would control more than 60 percent of all funds available to committees in the 108th Congress. Democrats, however, pointed to the portion of committee funds that are set aside for staff salaries, of which they will control 49 percent, achieving their goal of more closely reflecting the chamber’s partisan divide.

The organizing resolution was expected to be passed late Wednesday or early today, as Frist and Daschle continued refereeing a hiring-authority dispute regarding the Intelligence Committee that was the final hangup in approving the entire measure.

“That’s the only sticking point,” said Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.).

“It’s this close,” Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, said Wednesday evening, holding his index finger and thumb half an inch apart.

Both sides admitted that the funding solution appeared somewhat convoluted, but Democratic and Republican aides said it was the best way for the leaders to be able to present the final package to their respective caucuses.

The key wrinkle in the deal is an extra pool of cash — essentially an additional 10 percent of a committee’s operating budget — that was created early in the 107th Congress to smooth over the transition to the then 50-50 Senate, a kitty that will once again be available to Republican chairmen this Congress. Each chairman also has control of between 2 percent and 4 percent of funds that are devoted strictly to administrative purposes such as hiring clerical staff.

When those two sets of funds are included along with the regular salary budget, Santorum said, GOP chairmen can boast of controlling at least 60 percent of panel funds, not quite the two-thirds they vowed to capture in the two-week negotiating battle, but close enough for a moral victory.

Democratic aides, however, noted it was highly doubtful that the GOP chairmen will actually spend the entire chunk of additional cash. At the end of the 107th Congress, during which committees saw both Republican and Democratic chairmen, each panel ended up returning a chunk of that additional money.

For Democrats, the key figure is 49 percent, their share of the roughly $70 million that will be spent on normal committee activities, the bulk of which goes to salaries. That’s more than enough money for staff directors to continue operating with the same number of aides they had in the last Congress and reflects the funding percentages for majority and minority staff after Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) left the GOP and effectively gave Democrats 51 votes.

“What was good enough for the 107th Congress is good enough for the 108th,” Daschle said Wednesday morning.

As Frist put it in a brief interview, “They’re held harmless on their side.”

Frist had threatened to keep lawmakers in session during next week’s scheduled Martin Luther King Jr. recess unless they passed an organizing resolution and moved on to languishing spending bills. A Frist aide said that it is still possible Senators will be in session on Tuesday depending on how much work they accomplish during the remainder of this week on an omnibus appropriations package that includes last year’s remaining 11 appropriations bills.

The holdup over Intelligence came as the incoming chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), continued to joust with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the incoming vice chairman of the panel, over hiring practices on the committee.

Intelligence has operated in a largely non-partisan manner since its creation in the early 1970s. The chairman and vice chairman each have a couple of top staffers whom they hire, while the remaining two dozen or so employees are considered nonpartisan hires, answering to both parties because of the sensitive nature of their jobs.

Rockefeller, echoing complaints made by Democrats two years ago, has contended that the chairman of the committee actually exercises far more control over staff than is publicly admitted and has suggested that staff be divided up officially — and equally — along partisan lines.

In 2001, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), then vice chairman, made similar suggestions after a top staffer who had previously worked for a top Democrat on Intelligence was fired by then-Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

The matter was eventually smoothed over when Shelby agreed to rehire the aide, but Rockefeller has sparked similar passions with his current initiative.

Roberts delivered a stinging rebuke to Rockefeller’s request in a Tuesday floor speech, accusing him of attempting to politicize a committee with a nonpartisan history which he contends has helped make it successful.

“It requires cooperation, and one cannot foster a spirit of cooperation by proposing to fire all our current professional staff, split the committee’s staff in two, and rehire on a partisan basis,” he said.

But by late Wednesday, the Intelligence fight was the only obvious remaining sign of partisan feuding on the organizing front.

Even the glacial pace of moving Democrats out of their “majority” offices had finally begun to show signals of a thaw. Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who had been in the prime second-floor locale given to the Majority Whip, only Wednesday began moving into the less-coveted space given to the Minority Whip on the third floor.

The previous Minority Whip, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), had been out of the office for more than 10 days, but Reid had not been allowed to move, which made it impossible for Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to move into Reid’s office.

A Democratic aide explained that too many deals were being cut with GOP leaders, rather than the Rules and Administration Committee.

Because of that, all moves were frozen until all space could be audited, and each set of leaders and Whips could be assured of having appropriate space.

That arrangement was finalized earlier this week, and by Wednesday afternoon boxes of computers finally started rolling into Reid’s soon-to-be new office.

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