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Lugar Nixes Change

A proposal that would effectively stock the Foreign Relations Committee with senior Republicans has been rejected by the panel’s chairman — an action that ensures that junior GOP Senators will continue to have the opportunity to serve on a high-profile panel.

Foreign Relations Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said Tuesday that he has instructed a Republican Conference task force considering this and other rules changes to end its examination of reclassifying his committee.

“I am happy with the way things are and I think so are our members,” Lugar said. “We have good members.

The Indiana Republican, who himself serves on the task force that was considering the idea, added, “I have indicated to them to just take that off the agenda.”

Lugar’s efforts to prevent Foreign Relations from being recategorized for Republican Conference purposes from a “Super A” committee to an “A” panel run counter to the position Lugar articulated in years past. In previous internal GOP inquiries on the matter, Lugar supported the re-designation.

His decision to oppose it this time caught several Republicans by surprise.

“He is the one that started that discussion, and now he says he doesn’t really want to go forward with it,” said Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who is helping lead the study into this and two other Conference rules changes. “I think that is a mistake. He convinced me it should not be a ‘Super A.’”

Had the proposal been approved, it would have allowed Republican Senators currently assigned to either the Appropriations, Armed Services or Finance committees to also serve on Foreign Relations.

Republican Conference rules forbid a Republican Senator from sitting on more than one “Super A” committee.

Lugar said he made his decision out of fairness to current members of the committee, and he noted that the panel’s roster is full of talented lawmakers from top to bottom.

“I like them all, and that is why I don’t want anybody bumped off the committee, or inconvenienced, or [suffer] some aspersion that they really were not prepared to serve,” he said.

With the Foreign Relations proposal now tabled, the task force’s mission has narrowed to whether Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) should be granted more power over committee assignments, and whether to codify subcommittee chairmen’s authority over budget and staffing.

The question of whether to grant Frist more power is drawing strong opposition from self-identified centrists in the GOP, as well as from others who oppose the leadership from time to time on party-line votes. These Senators argue that Frist and future Republican leaders would be granted the power to punish Senators who opposed the leadership on votes by preventing them from serving on powerful panels such as Appropriations or Finance.

“The only thing I can tell you is I am going to oppose any attempt to vest more power in the Majority Leader so that seniority is no longer the primary factor for appointing committee members,” said Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is also a member of the GOP task force. “I think that would politicize the process in a way that we would live to regret.”

Supporters of this proposal argue that Frist does not have the same ability as Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to enforce party discipline and reward Senate Republicans who support the leadership’s priorities.

Unlike Republicans who make committee appointments based solely on seniority, Daschle has near unilateral discretion over panel assignments.

“I think there is a desire to empower our leadership so that their powers more closely mirror the Democratic leaders,” said Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who along with Lott is helping spearhead the examination of the Conference rules.

Talent said that granting Frist more power over assignments should not be viewed as a tool to punish people but rather as a way to reward Senators and to draw on each GOP Senator’s expertise when making committee assignments.

“You may choose people — and seniority is the rule of thumb — but every workplace, even unionized workplaces, say if you’ve got a good reason, you can depart from it,” Talent said. “If you got somebody entering the Senate who used to be an expert at a policy think tank on energy you may want to try and make sure they get on the Energy [and Natural Resources] Committee.”

Breaking with several of his fellow centrists, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), said he would support a rules change to give Frist more power. Smith noted that he based his decision on his service as Oregon state Senate president.

“I couldn’t have governed a legislative body with the rules of the U.S. Senate,” Smith said. “The key to crafting legislation is your colleagues have to believe you can help them or hurt them. The more tools the leader has the more effective the leader is going to be.”

Proponents of the rules changes had hoped to resolve these internal issues before the Senate adjourned later this month for the August recess, but it now seems more likely that any votes on the proposals won’t be held until the fall, perhaps even after the November elections.

While Lott said he thinks it’s imperative for the Conference to act on these measures, he suggested his colleagues might not have “the guts to do something.”

“Is there any fight, any spirit of doing what needs to be done in terms of the rules in the Senate Republican Conference,” he asked. “I don’t know if there is. The Conference is sleepwalking, and they don’t want to do anything that causes them to get a little agitated.”

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