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Lott offers plan to share power on Senate panels

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001

WASHINGTON -- One day after the 107th Congress convened, the Senate Republican leader floated an idea for sharing power with the Democrats who will control half the chamber, and House Republicans picked a decidely conservative slate of committee chairmen.

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi tested the waters among skeptical GOP colleagues Thursday for an agreement under which Democrats and Republicans would have equal membership on committees to conform to the Senate's new 50-50 split.

Several GOP senators said they're still exploring how to guarantee that Republican initiatives don't get bottled up in committee by party-line votes, along with a number of related issues such as what to do about tie votes in subcommittees and how to handle Senate membership on House-Senate conference committees. In the last Congress, when Republicans controlled the Senate 54-46, they had majorities of at least one vote on all panels.

One proposal under consideration would allow bills to go to the Senate floor, without any recommendation, if they receive a tie vote in committee. Currently, it takes a majority to send a bill to the floor, with or without a recommendation. This idea was worked out between Lott and Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota.

"It's not an agreement ... but they're working on the outlines of something they hope can get through both caucuses," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

The response among Democrats was generally positive, although some had questions and the caucus as a whole has not approved the arrangement, Daschle said after the Democratic meeting. But he said he thought there was a consensus in favor of the plan and added, "I think we have the makings of an agreement."

Both Lott and Daschle are pushing to get an agreement in place as quickly as possible. The Senate cannot organize for business without reaching an agreement on committees.

On the House side, new chairmen were picked for 13 of the 17 House committees. Because the GOP imposed a six-year term limit on leadership positions when it took over in 1995, several chairmen who had headed committees for the past three Congresses will now lead different panels.

In the most controversial contest, Republicans bypassed the seniority system in choosing Rep. Bill Thomas of California to head the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which writes all tax legislation and oversees trade policy and the welfare, Medicare and Social Security programs.

In picking Thomas, 59, an 11-term veteran, GOP lawmakers passed over Rep. Phil Crane, 70, an Illinois Republican who has served in the House since 1969, and whose district borders that of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Also running for the chairmanship was Rep. Clay Shaw Jr. of Florida.

Thomas had headed the Ways and Means health subcommittee and was a key member of the bipartisan commission that recommended a series of market-based Medicare reforms last year.

Considered one of the House's brightest members, he also has a reputation for a prickly manner and a quick temper. In September 1995, he and then-Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa, had a confrontation in a hallway, and Gibbons grabbed his tie.

Republicans stripped jurisdiction over insurance and securities matters from the Commerce Committee and put them in a new Financial Services Committee, formerly known as the Banking and Financial Services Committee.

Rep. Michael Oxley of Ohio was named head of the new committee, bypassing Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey, who had been the senior Republican on the banking panel and had sought the chairmanship.

Meanwhile, one congressman said he is leaving the House this month.

Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., a major force in public works who was once dubbed "king of asphalt" on Capitol Hill, said he will retire shortly after being sworn in for a 15th term in Congress.

Shuster, whose freewheeling use of campaign funds and close ties to an industry lobbyist drew the attention of the House ethics committee last year, cited health problems as the reason he would step down by the end of this month.

- Information from the Washington Post, Cox News Service and Associated Press was used in this report.

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