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Jonathan Karl: Capitol Hill office space, the latest partisan battleground

Jonathan Karl
Jonathan Karl  

CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl is reporting from Capitol Hill on the new Congress.

Q: How is bipartisanship currently playing out on the Hill?

KARL: Of course, everywhere the talk is bipartisanship, with leaders from both sides saying that nothing will get done without bipartisan cooperation. But there's a very fascinating behind-the-scenes battle going on over just how power will be divided in this Senate.

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With a 50-50 tie in the Senate, the tie-breaking vote is cast by the vice president. And until January 20, when George W. Bush is sworn in as president, the Democrats will be in control. They passed a resolution Wednesday, making Democrats in control of all the committees; essentially, the chairman of all committees for the next two weeks will be a Democrat.

Those include committees that will be holding confirmation hearings on President-elect Bush's new Cabinet. So, it's a very interesting situation.

One other thing that's interesting about the negotiations over power-sharing, the Democrats want everything divided 50-50 to match the divided Senate, including seats on all the committees, and they want co-chairmanships. It's also not solely a matter of those more serious questions of power, but there are some more mundane reasons they are fighting over -- for instance, things like office space on Capitol Hill.

Traditionally, the majority party gets more plum office space. The Democrats are saying they want the office space divided up 50-50. There's also patronage jobs like the sergeant of arms and the secretary of the Senate; those positions are appointed by the majority party and beneath those positions are hundreds more patronage jobs in the Capitol. Democrats also say they want a 50-50 crack at that stuff.

These are all battles and negotiations that are going on right now, including conversations over the phone between Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) and Trent Lott (R-Mississippi).

Q: Do we expect a flurry of last-minute bills by Democrats while they're still in control?

KARL: Democrats won't actually pass bills in these remaining days. First of all, it's unusual to see action this early in a session. There's also the issue of the House, which won't be in session again until Bush gets inaugurated. So, there's no place for those Senate bills to go should they try to pass anything.

But the real issue is with the confirmation hearings. The first confirmation hearings for Bush's Cabinet selections start Thursday with Don Evans for secretary of commerce.

You have some more controversial hearings coming up, including John Ashcroft for attorney general. Although Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee until January 20, it is unlikely the Ashcroft hearings will get started before the Republicans get in power. That's going to be one of the most controversial hearings.

Q: On another note, is Bush likely to get his tax cut through this Congress?

KARL: Dick Gephardt (D-Missouri) said something that was rather astounding for a Democrat Wednesday. He said that he believes given the current economic conditions of an apparent economic slowdown that it might be reason to accelerate a tax cut and make the tax cut more than what he had proposed in the past.

That's exactly the argument that George W. Bush has been making, and an argument that has been ridiculed by many Democrats. But here you had the Democratic leader in the House Wednesday, saying that if the economy is slowing, we may need a bigger tax cut.

Now, it also depends on the meaning of the word `bigger,' I suppose. Bush has got a $1.3 trillion tax cut that he campaigned on; Gephardt in the last Congress proposed a tax cut of $250 billion. So, there's a lot of daylight between what Gephardt and House Democrats have proposed in the past and what Bush is talking about.

Q: What was the mood like on the Hill Wednesday during the swearing-in ceremony?

KARL: It was certainly a day for the history books to see the vice president swearing in the first evenly divided Senate in a century. That was quite a sight, especially given the fact that among the new senators being sworn was, of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton. From the gallery, President Clinton was watching the new junior senator from New York getting sworn in as just another spectator in the crowd. He was sitting next to their daughter, Chelsea.

Also being sworn by Vice President Al Gore was Joe Lieberman, sworn in only because he decided in a controversial decision to run for both vice president and for re-election to the Senate.

Also getting sworn in was Jean Carnahan, who was elected completely without historic precedent in the United States. Carnahan's husband, Mel Carnahan, the late governor of Missouri, was the Democratic nominee for the Senate who was losing in the polls when he was killed in a plane accident in mid-October. With no time left to run another candidate, his name remained on the ballot and he won. The current governor of Missouri then decided to send Carnahan's widow, Jean Carnahan, to the Senate.

So, it was an incredible day Wednesday on the Hill.


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Thursday, January 4, 2001


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