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Published: Friday, 5/11/2001

The Senate's little sandbox

Republicans have decided that the parliamentary rules that govern debate and votes in the evenly divided U.S. Senate are getting in the way of President Bush's tax-cut and budget agenda. Their solution: Fire the guy who reminds them to follow those rules.

So it is that Majority Leader Trent Lott ordered the dismissal of Robert Dove, the Senate parliamentarian, who has worked in the Senate under Republican patronage since the mid-1960s.

The parliamentarian serves at the pleasure of the majority party in the Senate. It is his duty to decide on procedural matters in the rule-bound chamber, a job that has assumed extraordinary importance this year with the advent of the partisan split.

Each party has 50 votes, but Republicans hold sway on Senate operations by virtue of the tie-breaking vote that can be cast by Vice President Dick Cheney. However, some procedures and particular types of legislation require 60 votes, a near-impossibility on anything remotely controversial, and the parliamentarian has not been shy about calling them as he sees them, even if it does not coincide with GOP wishes.

In the case of the 2002 budget bill, Mr. Dove ruled that 60 votes were required because the legislation contained a $5 billion fund to pay for damage from natural disasters. That ruling, the Washington Post reported, was “the final straw” for GOP leaders, since it held up passage of the bill, and Mr. Dove was history.

“These are guys who want to win, and they don't want roadblocks in their way,” Norman Ornstein, analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, observed.

That's a polite way of saying that the GOP leadership resembles nothing less than a little boy who, not getting the toy he wants, pushes a playmate out of the sandbox and welcomes another who will give him what he demands.

The power-sharing agreement, negotiated between Senator Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle to avoid gridlock, had been at least partly successful in mitigating the effects of the partisan split. But the firing of the Senate's rules keeper for doing his job, coupled with rescinding the long-held rule on blocking judicial nominees, is like kicking sand in the opposition's face, even when the Republicans hold most of the toys.

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