By Eun Kyung Kim
WASHINGTON — Questions about whether Congress has the authority to alter the presidential primary system dominated a hearing Wednesday on a bill that would replace the current front-loaded process with a rotating regional plan.
In the rush to move their nomination process earlier in the 2008 calendar, 20 states plan to hold primaries or caucuses on the Feb. 5 "Super-Duper Tuesday."
"Our presidential primary system is broken and it's time to stop the primary arms race," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat and one of the bill's three original sponsors.
Klobuchar assured members of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee that the Supreme Court recognizes "broad congressional power" over presidential elections, an authority that extends to presidential primaries.
"So Congress is empowered to create an orderly process that brings a voice back to every state," Klobuchar said.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Lamar Alexander used a football analogy to describe the current "one-day traffic jam" selection process. He suggested the nation learn a lesson from the National Football League.
"The NFL schedules 16 contests over five months to determine its champion," the Tennessee Republican said. "The presidential nominating process uses the equivalent of two preseason games in Iowa and New Hampshire to narrow the contest to two or three — and sometimes those two preseason contests pick the winner."
The Iowa caucuses are scheduled for Jan. 14 and the New Hampshire primary, traditionally the first in the nation, has not been scheduled.
Florida plans to hold its primary on Jan. 29, despite a promise by the Democratic National Committee to yank all of its delegates unless the state pushes the date back. Michigan faces a similar sanction after it recently moved its primary to Jan. 15.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chaired the hearing, said lawmakers have introduced more than 300 bills within the last century to revise the presidential primary system. The latest was a measure by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., whose bill also uses a rotating primary system.
The bill by Klobuchar, Alexander and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., would create four regions, with states in the East, West, Midwest and South taking turns being first. Primaries would be held the first Tuesday of March, April, May and June. It would take effect in 2012.
Utah Sen. Robert Bennett, the committee's top Republican, praised the bill's sponsors for raising the debate, but he questioned whether the Constitution allows for congressional interference in the primary system.
"It may very well be that as we explore, we discover that the solution lies not in a piece of legislation but, in fact, in an amendment to the Constitution," he said.
Members of the National Association of Secretaries of State, which first proposed a similar rotating system in 1996, testified in support of the bill, which they said gives states a chance to meaningfully participate in the selection process.
William Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University, said he doubts the legislation is constitutional because the federal government lacks the authority to force states to hold primaries on specific dates.
Constitutional issues aside, Mayer said he opposed changing the system through federal legislation, which he said is too rigid and difficult to change. As an example, he noted how long it has taken Congress to pass campaign finance bills.