Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Senate Democrats Speak of Slowing Confirmation Votes

The New York Times
January 25, 2005
Senate Democrats Speak of Slowing Confirmation Votes

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 - Trying to show that they remain a force despite their reduced numbers, Senate Democrats on Monday threatened new hurdles for President Bush's cabinet choices and expressed deep misgivings about the planned Social Security changes at the heart of this year's Republican agenda.

Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said he was mulling whether to try to stall consideration of Michael O. Leavitt, Mr. Bush's choice for health secretary, unless Mr. Dorgan was guaranteed a vote on allowing importation of cheaper prescription drugs.

In addition, a growing number of Democrats are raising issues about the selection of Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general, a nomination initially headed for quick approval.

The political problems for the nominees arose after Democrats last week blocked a quick vote on the approval of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. As many as a dozen Democrats intend to use the Senate floor on Tuesday as a platform to lay out their objections to Ms. Rice, tying her to what they see as the administration's mistakes in Iraq.

"The honeymoon is over and we are now in the full throes of our new marital arrangement here," said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, after he and other Democratic leaders introduced a priority list on Monday sharply at odds with that put forward by Republicans.

While Republicans listed changes in Social Security as their No. 1 objective, Democrats made enlarging the armed forces and providing new military benefits as their top goal, rejecting the idea that the retirement program needed urgent repair. A poll of all Democratic senators by the Democratic staff of the Senate Finance Committee found none who supported diverting Social Security tax revenue into personal investment accounts, the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's initiative.

"This isn't a crisis, so why should we be lurching forward?" asked Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the new Democratic leader.

Democrats conceded that the new 55-45 split against them in the Senate put them at a severe disadvantage in pushing their legislative ideas or derailing those they did not like. And they acknowledged that, in the end, Mr. Bush would get his cabinet choices.

Yet they also demonstrated a willingness to use procedural weapons to make their points, even at the risk of being branded obstructionists.

In some respects, said one Democratic lawmaker who asked not to be named because his words were so blunt, they have little choice given their predicament as the party far out of power. "The truth is, you have no place else to go when your back is against the wall," he said.

Republicans grumbled about the tactics, predicting that Democrats would ultimately pay for them and again be punished by voters.

"I do feel that the American people spoke pretty loudly in these elections in terms of their support for this president and this Republican Congress - Senate and House - in support of an agenda that is consistent with the one that we've laid out today," said Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader.

Dr. Frist said he was disappointed that Democrats stalled the vote on Ms. Rice's confirmation, dashing the hopes of Republicans and the White House officials who had sought to cap the president's inauguration with her confirmation.

Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia led the Democrats' opposition, and has reserved an hour of floor time on Tuesday. So has Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who challenged Ms. Rice on the administration's rationale for the war during last week's hearings of the Foreign Relations Committee. Other Democrats, including Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, are also to speak.

Mr. Gonzales, whose nomination could be put to a vote in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, is another nominee encountering sharper-than-expected opposition. A number of committee Democrats - including Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles E. Schumer of New York -say they are leaning against voting for him or rethinking their support. As a result, Mr. Gonzales could face "no" votes from six or more of the committee's eight Democrats.

Democrats continue to seek more documents and more precise answers from Mr. Gonzales regarding his role in formulating policies on the treatment of foreign prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Drawing particular scrutiny has been Mr. Gonzales's role in the writing of a 2002 Justice Department legal opinion - since disavowed - that provided a narrow definition of torture.

Mr. Dorgan said he might try to block a vote on the nomination of Mr. Leavitt, the nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, until he received assurances from Dr. Frist that the Senate would vote on a plan to let cheaper prescription drugs into the country. Mr. Dorgan said he believed he had a similar commitment in 2004 but the vote never took place.

"I felt we were promised a vote last year and didn't get it, and anything that I can apply as leverage I will use," Mr. Dorgan said.

The parties' agendas illustrated their different priorities. Besides Social Security, Republicans called for tax changes, limits on lawsuits and an energy bill; Democrats said they would push for education assistance, a minimum-wage hike and improvements in the national voting system.

Democrats said they saw issues on which they could work with Republicans - several mentioned the transportation bill - and that the bulk of the nominations would zip through. Indeed, the Veterans Affairs Committee on Monday unanimously approved the nomination of Jim Nicholson as head of the Veterans Department, before he even testified. And the Senate without objection approved Carlos M. Gutierrez as the head of the Commerce Department.

But Democrats said they would not be cowed by their lower numbers, or the larger Republican ones. "We're not furniture," Mr. Dorgan said.

Eric Lichtblau and David E. Rosenbaum contributed reporting for this article.