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Monday, December 16, 2002

 
--- Let the Winter Games Begin! ---

It was shaping up as a joyous holiday season for Senate Republicans. November's two-seat swing gave them the Majority. The Louisiana run-off seemed to promise an additional seat. They'd take their time fine-tuning January's Organizing Resolution, leveraging a 52-48 advantage to stick it to the losers. Any static that might emanate from this process would be of the "dividing the spoils" variety.

Suddenly they're clinging to a 51-49 edge with a terminally discredited Leader who threatens to take their Majority down with him. As curmudgeon Moe Lane remarks in a DailyKOS comments section "there's a little part of my brain that loves to see those slo-mo movies of test crashes and expensive glassware shattering on cobblestone floors". Ah, schadenfreude!

What happens now? Here's a pre-game run-down of basic rules, strategies, strengths and weaknesses, who's holding (and hiding) which cards, chips, guns.


For starters, time is of the essence. Normally the O.R. -- and subsidiary detail down to the last stick of furniture -- is negotiated between respective Leaders of both parties. Even before the crystal shattered, the R's brought high expectations to a difficult negotiating process. That process should be in full swing RIGHT NOW. [See this November outlook by National Review's Byron York.]

Until the new Senate adopts a new O. R., normally by U.C. (Unanimous Consent) it operates with no O.R. in force ... but it functions largely by terms of the old one. Daschle remains "Majority" Leader, D's retain a one seat margin (and the chair) on most committees. Committee staff and budgets are divided equally. Other important business stays in limbo until the Resolution is resolved. Rookie Senators (R's Alexander, Chambliss, Coleman, Cornyn, Dole, Lindsey Graham, Sununu, Talent, and Murkowski's unnamed replacement ... and the D's Pryor) wait for their committee seats. Appropriation subcommittees don't even meet ... and the 107th Congress left a ton of spending questions unsettled.

Thus R's are impatient to score a new O.R., while D's can afford to run out the clock. In a game of negotiations and coalitions, this gives D's a decided advantage.


Banking on a 52-48 majority, R's had been drawing up an ill-conceived power offense -- acting like D's had no leverage and the pendulum would never swing back. R's would demand a 2-seat margin on most committees and a 2-to-1 ratio for supporting staff and budgets. [2-to-1 is the maximum ratio allowed under Senate rules, regardless of voting margin. With D's up 51-49, committee budgets were divided 50-50, plus 10% for admin.]

Landrieu's win pared the margin to 51-49, but caucus hotheads clung to the same objectives. In either case Daschle had, as he put it, "options" that would give R's cause to reconsider.

Now, with "all these troubles", everything is up for grabs. Everything. When the dust settles in January, control of the Senate might belong to the R's, or the D's, or somebody else.


An earlier post surveyed the creative options available to John McCain (beyond a mere party switch or a presidential bid). No reason to think he'll ever stumble across a better chance to lead. If he makes a move now, he's an 800-lb. eagle. If he stands pat now, he's only an 800-lb. parakeet.


How about Lott? I wish he'd spare us the gruesome spectacle of a man being dragged through racial sensitivity training every night on live TV, but he vows to stick it out. He further signals he would resign from the Senate if deposed. (A fallen Leader often cleans out his desk and goes home.) Mississippi's Gov. Musgrove is a D, who would likely appoint a D to replace Lott ... moving the Senate back to 50-50. The White House signals back, suggesting they would call this bluff if necessary. Is Lott bluffing? Is Bush? We don't know. Maybe they don't either ... not uncommon in games of mutual assured destruction.

Among the R's is Lincoln Chaffee, who might jump to join the D's. Conceivably he could jump even at 51-49. He'll be seated where his vote and voice can't matter much (perhaps paired up with a DINO like Zell Miller), since his RINO vote effectively reverses the R's one-seat advantage in committee wherever he sits. Where Chaffee has brokered bipartisan compromises (think Homeland Security) he's been double-crossed by his own side. This dilutes the usual incentive to stick with the Majority. A 52-48 margin gave R's options to manage (reward, punish, cushion) Chaffee's vote. 51-49 quashes some of those options. 50-50 gives Chaffee options.

The D's include Zell Miller, who fits in better with the R's. Zell, however, is loyal to who brung him. He's ticked off at the R's for shooting Georgia's Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes out of the saddle (and trading on Zell's good name in the process), unraveling Miller's lifelong crusade to reinvent his party in the South. He's really sore at the R's for reviving Confederate Revivalism. There's a slim chance he'd cross the aisle in a major reconfiguration, if the R's had different leadership ... or he might join a spoiler caucus if chaos and paralysis (or liberal triumphalism) were the evident alternative.

Another player to watch is Alaska's Frank Murkowski. Murkowski? He's not even in the Senate anymore, and wasn't a key player when he was there. Got elected Governor, took office, and now he gets to appoint his own replacement. The announcement was expected last week, but it's still pending ... and it's a much more valuable bargaining chip than it was a few days ago. At 51-49 or 50-50, any seat is a key seat and every player is a key player.


We won't detail the contenders today. The successful applicant for Lott's position should know the ropes ... should have served a full term or better. Can't be too dim-witted. Can't be too "liberal", or too independent. Probably can't be too southern, under the circumstances. Must be telegenic. Probably not in line to chair a major committee. And must be a smooth operator, adept at moderating the eternal, subtle, symbolic fight for the Party's heart and soul.

It's a short list ... and some of those names would alienate other key players, for reasons ideological or personal. Eager beavers include Don Nickles and Mitch McConnell. More viable picks might include Bill Frist and Kay Bailey Hutchison.


Lott won't survive as Leader. For practical purposes he's not Leader now -- he can't discipline his members or negotiate binding agreements with the other side. There's no clear favorite, so Nobody is Leader, and Nobody is trying to look too ambitious at the moment. With precious time slipping away, things are coming unhinged.

The caucus would not ordinarily act on a leadership challenge until the Senate convenes again the first week of January. Now they'll have to take a break from their winter break (normally a time when batteries are recharged, fences mended, deep thoughts thunk). They'll probably have to come back to D.C. and grapple for position, with no predetermined outcome. Real smoke-filled room machinations, the kind we don't see much anymore. (Just in: they plan to meet January 6, 2003 ... that's too late! What's the real plan?)

The R's primary objective now is to jettison Lott without losing control. They could easily lose control directly -- Lott resigns, Musgrove appoints a D, Chaffee jumps. They could lose control indirectly -- bridges are burned in the fight over Lott's office, or a new hard-line Leader alienates moderates, or McCain makes a "spoiler caucus" play.


Where are We The People in all this? A brokered resolution -- after the Supreme Court's intervention in Florida 2000, and the Jeffords jump -- would complete a trifecta of backroom deals. The voting public doesn't care much for backroom deals. It doesn't care much for gridlock either. Strangely enough, it likes divided government (2-to-1 in post-election surveys).

Landrieu's win reinforces this consensus in favor of division. Bush's star still shines, but less brightly. The economy is soggy. Iraq looks a bit boggy. The numbers don't work. Budgets are in real crisis in almost every state, even where Republicans live and vote. Dubya's famously tight-knit team is exposing loose thread here and there. A triumphant post-election Republican leadership porked the Homeland bill full of bastard provisions. Now Lott has gone and disgraced himself. [More than disgraced himself -- he's blown the Southern Strategy cover.]

Is this the "Contact With America" overreach redux? Don't know, but R's should not bank on churning up popular resentment against Demon Daschle.


R's have another tactical disadvantage. Republican leaders -- House, Senate, White House -- have not been conspicious as promise keepers lately (even to their own party allies), and they savaged their best Democratic allies of conveninece in Campaign 2002. When you are wheeling and dealing to save your skin -- especially offering the proverbial "player to be named later" -- memories of a broken deals take your options off the table. What more could be fairer?


But R's have options too. They are "motivated bidders". House R's control the purse, and the White House can bestow many favors (and punishments) by executive fiat, and via political fundraising and endorsements. They'd pay a handsome price to end this nightmare. And everything's negotiable, right?

In light of specified rewards (or threats), Mississippi's Gov. Musgrove might be induced to appoint an acceptable replacement. What's "acceptable", and to whom? Could he switch parties and appoint himself? Who knows? Everything's negotiable.

In light of specified rewards, Lott could be induced to finish out his term in the Senate ... or at least wait for the next shoe to drop. It's hard to reward Lott much -- or even keep him -- without embarrassing the Party, and threats seem superfluous at this point. But somebody can think of something, if they think hard enough. It's all negotiable.

In light of specified rewards, Tom Daschle might be induced to give the R's wiggle room. He might refrain from recruiting Chaffee, or swap Miller for Chaffee. He might take "majority" control but grant concessions in policy or structure, taking the R's halfway off the hook. In the process, he might trade away his own leadership position, substituting a more centrist Lieberman, Breaux or Graham. (He may want to escape the Leader's office anyway, as prelude to a presidential bid.) What price might he extract? Everything's negotiable.

Or, in light of specified rewards, Chaffee could be induced to stay with the R's, and all parties could play out the tightrope routine of a 50-50 Senate with Cheney's tie-breaking vote working in the R's favor. [The Constitutional tiebreaker applies to enactments, but probably not to internal matters such as the O.R. ... so D's might stay in the "Majority".] What would Chaffee want, and what could the R's offer? It's negotiable.

Or everybody could sit tight, watching events unfold. Fate can deal a wildcard at any time. Senators retire for reasons of health, opportunity, or even scandal. On both sides of the aisle, a majority of sitting senators would be replaced by appointees of the opposite party! Stuff happens. (That's one more reason -- a very good reason -- to refrain from overplaying one's hand.)


[For background, see the historic January 2000 50-50 O.R. (demonstrating Daschle's leverage even as R's held the high ground of the status quo ante majority AND Cheney's tie-breaker) ... the much shorter, more conventional June 2000 "Jeffords Jump" O.R. ... Roll Call's report on Daschle's leverage before Lott imploded ... and this Hill News run-down on jockeying for committee slots, etc. (after Lott's poorly chosen words, but before they were taken seriously). Possibly of note for "inside baseball" scuttlebutt, this Beltway Bloggers group blog.]