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Frist flops on two big GOP leadership tests
by Tom Oliphant
Boston Globe
July 18, 2004

WASHINGTON CONSERVATIVE "government" sputtered and then flopped last week as it attempted to grapple with the absurd contradictions inherent in subsidizing big business and regulating people's lives.

For all the right reasons, the bulk of the attention went to the rebuke handed President Bush and his Senate leadership pals who could not explain why conservatives should use the Constitution to not only regulate marriage but also overturn their movement's cherished 11th Amendment position that powers not given to Uncle Sam should be reserved for the states and the people.

My attention, however, was just as riveted on another flop by Bush and his hand-picked Senate leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, in mismanaging possibly the worst piece of tax legislation in American history in a way that has given proponents of serious regulation of the tobacco racket their best opportunity ever.

Put the two flops together, and the picture emerges of a movement that does better at outrage over trends in a free society than at governing, a movement willing to spend what they like to call "taxpayer money" and pass out special interest tax breaks to stay in power..

By a majority vote that included six Republicans, the Senate in effect decided to halt its farce, largely because the effort to approve a "marriage amendment" was shedding Republicans daily. For months, Bush and his Senate leaders had pushed a proposal to bar states from permitting gay people to get married as well as bar courts from blocking states that want to forbid civil unions.

On the eve of the floor debate, Frist was looking at as many as 60 no votes for a constitutional amendment that needed 67 yes votes. The problem was the extreme language about civil unions. Naturally, opponents were happy to have an up-or-down test.

In desperation, Frist and the White House wanted to open up the process to in effect write a constitutional amendment on the Senate floor to deal with the problems they had created by acquiescing for months in the civil unions language. One might have expected conservatives to respond that treating the Constitution this way is obscene. As it was, Frist could not muster even a majority (he needed 60 votes and got 48) even to proceed any further.

For my money what happened at the end of the week on tobacco and taxes was even more revealing. On this one, the mess started with corporate taxes and ended up producing the best chance ever for Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco -- for decades, blocking it has been one of the powerful racket's most fundamental purposes in muscling government. To the public the news of the Senate's overwhelming vote for this (along with a buyout offer for tobacco growers) might have seemed like it came out of the blue. It didn't. Earlier this year, Congress needed to replace about $5 billion in export subsidies that had been found against the rules of the World Trade Organization. It passed a reasonable bill, but in the House it mushroomed into a lobbyists' dream of goodies worth at least $130 billion over the next decade. To his shame, Bush went along with this outrage, but it was still short of House votes when the GOP leadership decided to throw the tobacco buyout in to win grower-state support. To compound the outrage, the roughly $10 billion deal (most of the money, naturally, would go to well-off large growers) would simply be added to the swollen national debt.

It was after this gigantic giveaway bill squeaked through the House that Frist made his mistake. Under the Constitution, revenue measures must originate in the House, but in practice the Senate often acts first. To follow the Constitution, it is routine for the Senate to technically pass the House version, then the two sides iron out their differences.

Frist, however, failed to remember that a tobacco buyout could not get through the Senate without FDA regulation attached, that there was a deal to that effect between grower states and antismoking forces, and that FDA regulation had become a bipartisan cause -- the sponsors are Edward Kennedy and Ohio Republican Mike DeWine.

Frist tried for the necessary unanimous consent on the House tax bill, but any first-grader could have told him that Kennedy would pounce like a tiger, which he in fact did. The result opened up the measure, and the provision for FDA regulation of a killer product that acts like a drug dialed through.

It is anyone's guess whether the Senate and House can resolve their tax bill differences, whether Bush will show anything resembling leadership in this mess. But there are no foreseeable prospects for amending the Constitution to impose marriage regulations on the states, just as there are no prospects that "conservatives" can agree on what kind of amendment they are advocating.

The problem here is not liberal obstructionism. The problem is a conservative movement that has lost its way and is courting the loss of its power.

Topplebush.com
Posted: July 20, 2004

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