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Frist May Get New Powers

Senate Republican leaders are considering granting Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) more power over committee assignments, a tool which would allow him to reward loyal Senators and punish wayward Republicans who fail to toe the party line.

Formal efforts to explore how to empower Frist and future Republican leaders began quietly last week when a working group convened to discuss this and two other proposals that could dramatically change the inner workings of the Republican Conference.

“There are a lot of Members who have voiced concerns about the fact that our leader has less levers to be able to accomplish what he wants to accomplish than any other leader here in the four caucuses and the Conference,” Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) said. “They believe giving the leader some more options is something we need to consider.”

The Senate Republican Conference currently adheres to the seniority system to choose its committee assignments and chairmen, while Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) all have significant influence over committee assignments.

In addition, the working group is considering redesignating the Foreign Relations Committee to allow senior GOP Senators to simultaneously serve on both that panel and one other high-profile committee, such as Appropriations, Armed Services or Finance. The Republican Senators are also examining rewriting a rule to codify subcommittee chairmen’s authority over budgets and staffing.

While changing the status of the Foreign Relations panel and diluting the power of committee chairmen might face opposition, weakening the seniority system is likely to be a more controversial proposal.

Several centrist Republicans said last week that they would oppose any efforts to scrap the seniority system, viewing such an action as a blatant attempt to allow the GOP leader to punish Senators for opposing the leadership on any issue.

“I would resist anything that would be somehow punitive to Members, obviously,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who noted he had not yet seen the proposal.

“I would be opposed to vesting the power and changing the seniority system,” added Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Frist said he supports changing the rules, although he offered the caveat that “they are not yet specific [enough] to be for them or against them.”

“I think we need a re-examination of the Republican Senate Conference rules and I support reform of them,” he said.

Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) have been active in the effort.

Rank-and-file Republicans were first informed about the leadership’s decision to study the rules changes Wednesday at the Republican Steering Committee meeting, and the working group of eight GOP Senators met Thursday afternoon to begin considering the broad outlines of various proposals.

But a GOP Senator said a subtle hint was dropped at Tuesday’s Republican Policy Committee lunch that changes were in the works when Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) complained that Daschle has powers to enforce loyalty in his Caucus.

“It is not coincidental that this is being directed in conjunction with the budget issues at this point in time,” said the Senator, who spoke about the meeting on the condition of anonymity. The Senator added that giving Frist such power would discourage the exchange of differing ideas within the Conference.

Nickles is frustrated that not all 51 Republicans have supported his budget resolution, which has put Republicans in a sticky situation. GOP Senators were highly critical of the Democrats’ failure to pass a budget in 2002.

The Budget chairman said he is particularly disappointed that Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine), Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman McCain, and Small Business and Entrepreneurship Chairwoman Snowe all have failed to support the GOP budget.

“I am frustrated that three committee chairmen continue to hold out against the budget and I think it hurts our efforts,” Nickles said.

The Oklahoma Senator remains two votes shy of passing the budget resolution, but none of the aforementioned chairmen or Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) has been willing to budge from their position that a multiyear budget enforcement mechanism (PAYGO) be a condition of their support for it.

Nickles, who is retiring at the conclusion of the 108th Congress, said the current seniority system “puts us in a little bit of a disadvantage vis-à-vis the House and the Senate Democrats as far as encouraging greater party unity on a few issues.”

“I think Republicans need to be looking at different things to strengthen their unity,” he said.

But a senior aide to a centrist lawmaker warned that giving a Republican leader the power over committee appointments could spell the end of any influence centrist Republicans currently have in the Republican Conference.

“The net effect is that this would be emasculating to the few remaining Republican moderates,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Similar efforts to grant a Republican leader more power failed in 1995, when a proposal to give Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) the authority to nominate committee chairmen was stopped, as was an attempt to allow him to make an appointment to a committee if more than two vacancies occurred on that panel.

Those efforts were born of the failed attempt by a group of Senators earlier that year to try to strip then-Appropriations Chairman Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) of his gavel in retaliation for not voting for the Balanced Budget Amendment.

Changing Foreign Relations from a “Super A” committee to an “A” committee has been discussed in the past and was about to be formalized in 2003 when Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) blocked it.

Downgrading the panel would allow senior members to continue serving on the committee when a seat opens up on a more coveted panel such as Appropriations, Armed Services or Finance. The logic is that given the current international political climate, Congress would benefit from having more experienced Senators serving on the panel.

“The drawing power of Approps and Finance are so strong it is pulling senior people off of Foreign Relations,” said Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah). “While it is good to have freshmen on Foreign Relations, we ought to have a few more senior folks.”

Should Foreign Relations receive a new designation, one idea is to elevate another committee to “Super A” status to keep the current balance of “Super A” committees and help ensure junior Senators are able to serve on a desirable committee, Santorum said.

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