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Last Updated:5/24/01
What a Democratic Senate would mean for Colombia policy, May 23, 2001

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According to numerous press reports, Vermont Senator James Jeffords plans to leave the Republican Party on May 24. His switch to independent status would give the Democrats a 50-49 majority in the Senate, shifting control from the Republicans to the Democrats. This would be the first time the Democratic Party has controlled a house of Congress since 1994.

If the reports about Jeffords' switch are accurate, the Democrats, led by current Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D- South Dakota), would assume control of the Senate's legislative agenda. Democrats would determine which bills reach the Senate floor for consideration. They would also win the powerful chairmanships and a majority of seats on the Senate's twenty committees, which write and approve legislation, hold hearings, approve executive and judicial nominees, and perform oversight.

No overall change

During last year's Senate debate on the aid package, Democrats voted 36-9 to table Sen. Paul Wellstone's (D-Minnesota) amendment to cut the military portion of the aid, and voted 38-6 in support of Sen. Christopher Dodd's (D-Connecticut) failed amendment to restore Blackhawk helicopters to the Senate's version of the package. (The Senate's version had replaced Blackhawks with less expensive Huey helicopters.)

But a Senate changeover would not bring an about-face in U.S. policy toward Colombia. The current policy - particularly last year's large, mostly military aid package - was put in place by a Democratic president, and most Senate Democrats supported the package during the June 2000 floor debate.

Several smaller changes

Nonetheless, several important, though less momentous, changes in the policy would probably come with Democratic control of the Senate's committees.

Sen. Leahy on U.S. policy toward Colombia

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, press release, August 28, 2000
  • Letter from Sen. Patrick Leahy to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, August 30, 2000
  • Speech by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), June 30, 2000
  • Statement of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), June 21, 2000
  • Speech by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), June 20, 2000
  • Statement of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), February 24, 2000
  • Letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright from Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), December 22, 1999

(For his part, Sen. Jeffords offered unenthusiastic support to last year's aid package.)

The most striking change would be on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for writing the annual foreign aid budget bill. This bill will include most of the 2002 aid package for Colombia and its neighbors. Control of this key subcommittee would pass to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), a leading and vocal critic of the U.S. strategy in Colombia.

Replacing Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Leahy would produce the "mark," basically the first draft, of the foreign aid bill. This does not necessarily mean that massive military aid and fumigations would disappear from the Senate's version of the 2002 bill -- such radical change is highly unlikely. But it is quite probable that the bill would include strong human rights conditions, without a waiver. (As the subcommittee's ranking minority member in 2000, Leahy persuaded the Republican leadership to include strong conditions in the "mark" of the Senate's Plan Colombia aid package bill.)

Democratic control of the Foreign Operations subcommittee could also mean greater emphasis on the economic part of the 2002 aid package, stronger environmental protections, limits on involvement of U.S. troops, and similar adjustments. It is also likely that the Senate will implement greater scrutiny over the effects of fumigation, the use of private contractors, the Colombian military's human rights performance, and similar issues.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, another critic of the current U.S. approach, would assume the chairmanship of the Labor, HHS, and Education Subcommittee, which is responsible for federal drug treatment funding.

Sen. Leahy and Senate Democrats would also play a far greater role at the crucial last stage of lawmaking: the House-Senate conference committee that reconciles both houses' versions of a bill. Democrats had little opportunity for input in June 2000, when Republican leaders of the "Plan Colombia" aid package conference committee weakened the Senate's human rights conditions and increased military assistance levels. Sen. Leahy will now be a key player in the conference commitee that finishes the foreign operations bill, which will include most of the 2002 aid package.

Sens. Biden, Dodd and Levin on U.S. policy toward Colombia

  • Trip report of Senators Levin, Reed, Nelson and Nelson, February 23-25, 2001
  • Speech by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), November 1, 2000
  • Speech by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), June 21, 2000
  • Speech by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), June 21, 2000
  • Speech by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), June 21, 2000
  • Speech by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), June 21, 2000
  • Speech by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), June 21, 2000
  • Speech by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), June 21, 2000
  • Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), Report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, May 3, 2000
  • Press Release by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), May 3, 2000
  • Speeches by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), April 13, 2000
  • Statement of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), February 22, 2000
  • Press release by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), February 22, 2000

In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chairman Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) would yield to Deleware Sen. Joseph Biden. Both Biden and the likely new head of the Committee's Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), are strong -- but not uncritical -- supporters of the current Colombia policy. The committee would probably hold more hearings to oversee the policy, with greater emphasis on human rights, delivery of economic aid, and similar issues.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) would head the powerful Armed Services Committee, which oversees the Defense Department's activities in the Andes. Levin is a strong supporter of the current U.S. policy in Colombia. In a recent report, he suggested "clarifying" the Leahy amendment -- a provision that prevents U.S. assistance to abusive military units -- in order to allow more aid to go forward.

Democratic control of the Senate would strongly affect the Bush administration's appointments to key positions, which would suddenly have to pass though often hostile committees. Otto Reich, President Bush's notoriously hard-line choice for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, could face trouble in Sen. Biden's Foreign Relations Committee. John Walters, Bush's nominee for "Drug Czar," would probably be approved by the Judiciary Committee, which Sen. Leahy would also chair. Walters would likely endure a tough hearing, however, because of his extremely conservative views on military assistance, mandatory sentencing and drug treatment.

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