Dems, GOP battle for election-year positioning in Senate

WASHINGTON -- It's becoming a pattern in the Senate: Republicans withdrawing or defeating their own legislation rather than allowing Democrats to force votes that could embarrass GOP leaders and be used against President Bush.

The latest clash came Thursday, when Senate Republicans tried to force through a bill changing the 1996 welfare law to require more single mothers to work for more hours to qualify for benefits. The measure also would provide millions of dollars to promote marriage.

But they failed to get the 60 votes needed to stop Democrats from using the bill as a vehicle to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7, extend federal unemployment insurance and stop planned changes in federal regulations to strip overtime pay protections for many white-collar workers.

Rather than allow votes on the Democratic amendments, the Senate's GOP majority moved on, leaving the welfare bill in limbo.

"Why put our members through the whole litany of Democratic political votes for no discernible gain?" said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

Republicans portray the stalemates on the welfare bill and other legislation as unyielding Democratic obstructionism; Democrats argue the GOP is refusing to let the Senate consider anything other than an extremely ideological conservative agenda. Both sides accuse the other of refusing to let them do the nation's business. All of this is overshadowed by the November elections.

"This Daschle graveyard will become an issue in the election," a frustrated Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, vowed after Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and his party won another battle Thursday to offer their amendments.

Democrats say if nothing gets done, it's the Republicans' fault and they plan to let the voters know.

'The public's business'"They have the responsibility," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "They have a Republican president, a Republican House and a Republican Senate. They have the responsibility to deal with the public's business, and this is an absolute abdication of dealing with the public's business."

The welfare law, credited with reducing welfare rolls by nearly 60 percent, expired in 2002 but has been extended several times to give Congress more time to act. The latest extension is set to expire June 30.

On the issue of raising the minimum wage, Kennedy complained that "Republicans are so frightened to vote on this they're pulling parliamentary procedures to stop it."

Republicans insist that the Democrats were the ones who didn't want to vote on the welfare bill. "They're talking out of both sides of their mouth," Grassley said.

It wasn't the first bill caught in the gridlock.

Last week, Republicans pulled a corporate tax bill after losing a similar fight to limit debate and prevent a vote on blocking new rules that would remove federal guarantees of time-and-a-half pay for many white-collar workers.

A month ago, the GOP voted down their own gunmaker immunity bill after the Democrats won an amendment to extend a federal assault weapons ban beyond its expiration in September. Six of Bush's judicial nominees also are stuck, with a seventh likely, Idaho lawyer William G. Myers III.

Republicans accuse Democrats of using the Senate's parliamentary rules to block votes on many items on President Bush's GOP agenda.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said, "We have been met with obstruction with class action, with medical liability, with the Work Force Investment Act" -- the new label that Republicans have put on the corporate tax breaks legislation.

Santorum accused Democrats of trying to build a partisan election-year message for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the likely Democratic presidential nominee. "They wait until they have a nominee to have message moments," Santorum said. "This is all politics."

Democrats complain that Bush, Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert are trying to ram their election-year agenda down Democrats' throat with an ideological meanspiritness unseen in years despite Bush's 2000 election pledged to be a uniter, not a divider.

"We simply want to be heard," said Daschle, of South Dakota. "It isn't our unwillingness to have a good debate. It's our unwillingness to be locked out of the process."