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Inhofe Considers Rules Amendment

Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is considering asking his Senate colleagues to amend chamber rules to terminate the minority party’s ability to block committees from reporting out legislation and nominations.

Such a measure would impose uniform guidelines on how the Senate’s 19 standing committees and lone special panel operate.

“I am going to have to look to see what can be done, because the Democrats could effectively shut down the government altogether,” Inhofe said.

The EPW chairman’s contemplation of a new rule was sparked by committee Democrats’ successful effort last week to delay a vote on Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt’s (R) nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Democrats charge that Leavitt has failed so far to adequately answer their written questions posed to him, and therefore boycotted the hearing.

Inhofe is likely to face stiff opposition if he pursues a change in the rules, which would require 67 votes on the Senate floor.

“I am not in favor of changing the rules much,” said Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a staunch defender of Senate tradition. “The rules have been here for a long time and they are the product of decades of experience.”

Currently, each committee adopts its own rules of procedure at the outset of every Congress. EPW rules require that at least two members from the minority party be present for a nominee to be reported out of committee. Democrats took advantage of that stipulation by not attending the Leavitt hearing and thereby preventing Inhofe from holding a vote on the nomination.

“I think we may have to change the rules in the Senate in terms of how committees operate because they say you can’t conduct business unless you have members of both sides” present, Inhofe said. “What they did [Wednesday] is far worse than stopping a guy’s confirmation. It goes to the whole heart of how the committee system works.”

Even though EPW requires at least two minority party representatives to be present to take action, other committees have less stringent rules. For example, the Finance Committee requires that a quorum include at least one member from each party to be present when the full committee votes on a bill or a nomination. And the Rules and Administration Committee requires that a majority of panel members be present to vote on legislation or a nominee, but does not stipulate that a member from either the majority or minority be present when such an action is taken.

Inhofe said he is also interested in amending the rule that allows committees to only meet for two hours after the Senate gavels into session unless both parties agree — on a daily basis — to waive it. In recent years, this unanimous consent agreement has been rejected by several Senators for various reasons.

“One party can stop government completely, and I don’t think that was certainly the intent of those people who made the rules to start with,” the Oklahoma Republican said.

Inhofe’s proposals for adding to and altering the current rules are just two among a handful of reforms that Republicans have been championing since taking over the majority earlier this year.

“The Senate Republican majority is going to have to look at a number of them,” Rules Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said of potential changes. “I do think our rules have not been seriously considered in quite some time.

“We need to take a look at the way the Senate functions,” Lott added.

One rules change is currently waiting action by the full Senate. Lott’s panel approved a measure in June that would end the use of a filibuster to stop a nomination. All 10 Republicans on the panel voted to report the bill out of committee, but it still needs the backing of 67 Senators on the Senate floor for it to be enacted. Democrats on the Rules panel did not attend the June 24 hearing and have vowed to prevent the rule change from passing on the floor.

Republicans are seeking this change to stop Democrats from blocking President Bush’s judicial nominees. Already, one of Bush’s picks for a seat on the appellate court has withdrawn his name because Democrats refused to allow a vote on his nomination. Currently, Democrats are blocking two other judicial nominees and have pledged to block U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering’s nomination to the appeals court.

The disagreement over judges has added to the partisanship in the traditionally collegial Senate.

“I think the judge issue is poisoning the well around here and it is unfortunate,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). “It has never happened before this filibuster on the judges at this level, and that has created frustration.”

But Democrats contend Bush is to blame for the judicial filibusters, because he refuses to work with Democrats to pick candidates acceptable to both political parties.

“I would like to point out, when people are opposed to some of these nominees, don’t look at the Senators, ask the guy who sent the nominees,” said Judiciary ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “That is part of the problem. The White House doesn’t make an effort to really work with everybody.”

Another rules change advocated by several Senators is one ending the use of an anonymous “hold.” A hold is a tactic used by a Senator to stop a nomination or a bill the lawmaker opposes, or often to gain leverage on another issue.

“It is a huge problem for the leaders,” Lott said of the use of secret holds. And Lott, a former Majority Leader, warned that Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) will experience the “devastating” consequences of this practice when the two leaders try to wrap up legislative business for the year.

“They are fixing to find out the last week we are here they are going to say, ‘The hold is a really bad creation,’” Lott said. “I know it, but they have got to see it. That is when conferences are coming through, and that is when bills need to move.”

As for the Leavitt nomination, Inhofe has scheduled three consecutive meetings beginning Oct. 15 in which a vote on the Utah governor’s nomination could occur. But it is unclear what action Democrats will take.

“He hasn’t answered our questions,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “So if we get the answers to our questions from Leavitt that is a different circumstance.

“Let’s see how he answers our questions,” she added.

Inhofe could change his panel’s rules to allow him to report Leavitt out of the committee, but he would still need two Democrats present to take a formal vote on the change.

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