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Trent Lott Explains Senate Power-Sharing Agreement

Aired January 5, 2001 - 3:04 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go immediately now to Washington and the Senate press gallery. The majority leader, Senator Trent Lott having a talk about the plans for power sharing in the Senate, the new 50-50 split and what he thinks this will mean.

SEN. LOTT (R-MS), MINORITY LEADER: ... but as I just said in my speech on the floor of the Senate, I think what we've come up with in the organizational resolution is a reasonable approach to the reality that the Senate is 51-50.

Now, I emphasize that. There's been some error in that many have referred to the Senate as being 50-50. It's 51-50 now and it's 51-50 after the 20th. Under the Constitution, Article III, Section 3 does say the vice president shall vote if the Senate finds itself to be equal in numbers. So that's a very important allowance and provision in the Constitution for a situation like this one.

And while this is relatively unprecedented, it's not unprecedented. There have been at least two other instances in history close to this. And so we have to find a way to allow the Senate to go forward and act and to produce the American people's agenda.

We don't want a prescription for gridlock. We cannot allow that. We have to extend the hand of friendship to our colleagues and try to find a way to get the substantive issues to the floor of the Senate. I believe this resolution provides for that.

It does acknowledge that while it's 51-50, there are 50-50 in terms of senators. We will have equally divided on the committees, but we also will have a procedure to bring a bill or a nominee to the floor of the Senate in case of a tie vote.

I don't know how much that's going to happen; I hope not very often. I can't imagine there being more than two or three, if that many, nominations that actually would be, you know, held up on a tie vote in a committee.

But if that happens, we have a process to discharge that committee, bring it right to the floor of the Senate -- or to put it on the calendar of the Senate. And then it can be called up in the full Senate, as is always would be the case with all the rules and perquisites of the senators guaranteed rights of objection, filibuster and all of that. So it doesn't change the rules of the Senate itself once it gets to the floor. But it guarantees that a bill or nominee in disagreement cannot be killed in a subcommittee level or even at the full committee level.

As far as conferences, we have nothing in the resolution on that, but we have a colloquy in which we say that we will basically go with the rules that we have had in the past, which means that the majority leader has the right to set the number, but it can be objected to or it can be filibustered or it can be amended by Democrats.

But if this leads to a lack of action or obstructionism, it will be obvious who's doing it.

And I would prefer that when we do come to a point of disagreement that it be on substance, not on rules. While rules are important, because they affect the substance, what we should be talking about is the American peoples' agenda, not a partisan agenda of either party. We should be getting about the business of dealing with education.

The chairman of our conference, the vice chairman of our conference -- our conference met today for quite some time. We talked about the issues we want to address first and often.

Education is right at the top. We have got to make sure that our national defense is strong. And I'm not putting them in an order. But these are the things that we talked a lot about.

Social Security, Medicare reform, prescription drugs; we've got to make sure that elderly are taken care of, and that there is a system to make sure that those programs are going to be stable for years to come.

And, of course, we must also have tax policy that makes the tax code fairer and makes sure that the economy is strong and stays strong and gets even stronger.

Energy policy: We are seeing right now people having a hard time getting what they need for fuel or affording it.

So these are issues that we will debate. But I think what we've come up with is an opportunity for the committees to have a vote reflecting the make-up of the Senate, to make sure that it cannot be used to kill bills or nominees in the committee, to have a greater opportunity for debate, to make sure that both sides get a chance to offer amendments without there being a blocking effort on either side.

It has been pointed out that we will have more of a 50-50 divide in terms of office space and staff. I think the American people would say, you know, "A pox on your house if you get too tangled up on that."

But that provision also recognizes that there are administrative costs that goes with running a committee. The chairman will run the committee. The chairman will have administrative allowance beyond the other staff allocations.

So it's 50-50, plus the administrative costs, which could be as much as 10 percent, but that will be determined in the usual way by the Rules Committee and the Legislative Committee. One committee may need administrative costs of 3 or 4 percent. The next one may actually have more than that. But it will be commensurate with the past history of administrative costs.

Now I'm getting off into the type of nitty-gritty that I know the people don't want to hear a lot about.

I want to thank my colleagues here with me that helped work this through, that raised questions, that helped adjust the language: Senator Hutchison from Texas; Senator Frist, who has joined our leadership team; Senator Santorum from Pennsylvania, that chaired our discussions yesterday and today and did a really good job; Senator Larry Craig, the chairman of our Policy Committee and the distinguished chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who would quite often stand up and say, "We can make this work. We can look after the interest of our national security. I can work with a Democrat on my committee. But the more important thing is that we have -- that we do it; that we don't talk about it, we don't have rules that delay it."

So, here we are, and I want to thank all of these gentlemen and lady for being here with me. I'd like to take a couple of questions, then let me go back down to the floor because I got to get involved in a colloquy, and maybe call on the other members here.

I guess, Rick, you first.

But let me take just a couple of questions.

QUESTION: From a practical aspect, will this even, 50-50, split of committee assignments make it harder to pass the president-elect's tax program when he submits it?

LOTT: I don't think so. As I said, it could be used to make it more difficult within the committee, but it won't have an effect of killing it in a subcommittee or a full committee or in the Senate.

I think that this president is going to make his case to the American people. The American people are going to expect us to act.

When I spoke on the floor earlier, I made the point about when I was in the House in the '80s, we had the Reagan agenda. Tip O'Neill was the speaker. He had control of the Rules Committee. He could have killed those bills without a vote. But he didn't do it. He said, "No, the president is entitled to have his case considered." And in vote after vote after vote, and I know because I was the whip, it was within five or six votes or less. But he allowed it to happen.

This allows us to be sure that the president's agenda will be considered, it will be voted on. And if these rules are used to try to block it, then is when we will go to the mat and when the American people will not accept something that produces no result. QUESTION: It won't make it easy, will it?

LOTT: No. I mean if we had 65 votes, it would probably be very easy. We don't have.

Yes? Yes?

QUESTION: What changed between yesterday and today that you were able to...

LOTT: The changes have been going on all along. One of them was, Senator Kyl, I believe it was, from Arizona, raised the question about the subcommittee -- what if a nominee or a bill is killed in the subcommittee?

Well, in some committees, that makes no difference, because the subcommittees are not very active, don't usually -- Finance is one example. We usually don't report bills from subcommittee to full committee. But in other committees, like Judiciary and maybe even Armed Services, the bills emanate up from the subcommittee. So somebody said, "Well, what about that?"

I went back to Tom Daschle, said, "Tom, this is a problem." So we put language in there that says basically the chairman can pull a bill up from the subcommittee if there's a tie vote there.

We continued to work on the language with regard to funds for the staffs.

So there were several different places -- we continued to talk about when and how second-degree amendments can be offered. So we actually continued to make changes right up until the resolution was put before the full Senate.


QUESTION: What sort of input did the president-elect or the vice president-elect have in to this process, if not in the details in the spirit of what you were doing? And also, did you have a vote in your conference on this?

LOTT: The president and the vice president-elect had all the input that they wanted.


STAFF: Very well put.

LOTT: Which was not much.


LOTT: Basically, without saying it, their message was, "This is Senate business." They're an executive branch; let the legislative branch work this out. But I know that they're pleased that we're not going to be tangled up in a filibuster here for the next two weeks or the next three weeks or whatever.

And by the way, at one point back in history, one similar situation, I think they debated the rules for two months or maybe longer.

I used that expression on the floor. This is an extension of what the president has been saying. He has said, "Look, let's find a way to work together. Let's deal with the people's business. Let's be uniters not dividers."

And I think, as I said, this is a framework for bipartisanship. This is a continuation and an extension of the atmosphere he has been trying to perpetuate. We have joined in that effort now.

And I'd like for Rick Santorum to pick up on that point.


QUESTION: One quick question, (OFF-MIKE) subcommittee or full committee level, you mean only by tie votes?

LOTT: Oh, yes.

QUESTION: If there's a majority vote to kill a bill, then it's over with.

LOTT: You know, it's gets so complicated, and the America people really don't want to hear this. But, for instance, in the Budget...



LOTT: Let me give you two examples. Yes. In the Budget Committee, after March the 1st, the budget can be reported without even a vote of the committee. That's in the rules. People don't seem to be aware of that.

LOTT: So that's just one -- well, that's just one example. Yes, I think the answer is sufficient.


QUESTION: What happens -- what will the rules say about conference committee meetings?

LOTT: It just -- we will have -- the resolution is solid on that. Our colloquy will say, basically, that we'll proceed like we have in the past; you know, that the rules with regard to the budget and reconciliation and how conferees are appointed will be the same as they have been.

QUESTION: Will they be even? Like if there are four members... LOTT: It will vary from bill to bill. And in most instances, I presume that there will be a one-vote margin, but it will depend on the bill and how we'll work it out. That's how we've always worked it out. You may not be aware of it, but quite often we spend hours or even days working out who the conferees will be, how many there will be, who they will be -- things like that. But we've always worked it out.

QUESTION: I didn't realize that there was ever a case in which the majority party didn't have a majority on the conference committee.

LOTT: I don't know what the precedent is on that. But I think that that still will be the case, that we will have the majority -- again because you can't have a situation where one vote, one senator can hold up the agenda of the Senate, the House, the president, the American people. But we will work through that.

I mean that's why this resolution is silent on that because if -- we couldn't more on this resolution in terms of our rights than we had under the old situation.

Yes, and then I've got to go.

QUESTION: On motion to discharge petitions, isn't that (OFF- MIKE)

LOTT: Sure.

QUESTION: So it can't be done by the chairmen, themselves?

LOTT: No. No. No.

QUESTION: And if the minority leader, at that point, wants to make that motion for a bill that's in -- the Democrats wanted it, but a tie vote, in that situation, does he get recognition?

LOTT: He can get recognition to do that. The majority leader will continue to have priority recognition. But remember what happens at that point. It can't not be objected to or filibustered. It can be debated for a period of time and then a vote. But we will have 51 votes at that moment.

But all that does again, let me emphasize, just put it on the calendar. But, yes, he can move when there's a tie on a legislative bill itself, not on substitutions, stuff like that.

Thank you very much and let me yield to Senator Santorum.

CHEN: Senator Trent Lott, the once and future leader of the majority party in the Senate, speaking before reporters in the Senate Press Gallery at this hour. As he said, he thought a lot of the American public would want to hear all the details of the power- sharing agreement worked out between Republicans and Democrats. But let's give you the big picture on all of this.

This has been a discussion that has been under way because of forces we know -- the makeup of the Senate will be divided 50/50 in terms of the number of senators on the floor. but on the other hand, as Senator Lott quickly points out, it will actually be a 51/50 split when Vice President Cheney, the vice president-elect, comes into power, because the vice president does have the authority in the Senate to cast tie-breaking vote.

So Senator Lott explaining to reporters there what he thought of the power-sharing agreement and the importance of not allowing the situation in the Senate to work into a gridlock, and allowing, as he said, one senator hold up legislation that needed to be taken under way for the American people.

The discussions are still going on, on this particular issue on the Senate floor at this hour. This hour we're still watching Senator Robert Byrd, very respected senior senator, on the Senate floor speaking his mind on the particular issue. And we do expect that there will be other speeches as well made to this subject coming up within the hour, though we do expect that there will be a vote taken on the power-sharing deal, and CNN will bring you live coverage of that when that does happen.



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