Cross backers cross signals

August 14, 2006

Sure, it probably seemed that the Senate quickly and decisively passed a plan to keep the much-argued-about cross sitting atop Mount Soledad. The vote was unanimous, there was no debate, and it came less than two weeks after House passage.

But things rarely go that smoothly in politics.

While the proposal to transfer the 29-foot cross to federal control seemed to breeze through the upper chamber Aug. 1 with barely a batted eyelash – PresidentBush is to sign the measure today – its passage was actually accompanied by a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

After the House voted 349-74 in July to shift the city land to the Defense Department to avoid a court-ordered removal of the cross, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama – we get to his political designation later on, with a reason – immediately introduced a nearly identical bill and began working to get it put on the consent calendar, which dispenses with debate and a recorded vote.

Just as immediately, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer declared their support for keeping the cross atop the 822-foot hill overlooking La Jolla. This by itself was somewhat remarkable. The two Democrats tend to side more often with church-state separation types who want the cross removed than with conservatives such as Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Alpine Republican who authored the legislation to transfer the land beneath the war memorial to federal control.


But the two senators have also argued that public money for repairs should go to missions that hold Catholic services because of the historic nature of the buildings, suggesting that ideology tends to fly out the window when local voters have strong opinions on a matter. That's assuredly the case in San Diego, where 76 percent of voters last fall approved a measure that would have donated the cross to the federal government, but which a judge said violated the state constitution.

So it came as a surprise when Sessions brought up his bill for a vote one morning shortly after Hunter's measure passed the House, only to discover that Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., objected to voting on the matter.

Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin insisted that Nelson himself supported Sessions' bill. He objected to a vote that morning as a favor to the two senators from California, McLaughlin said.

Feinstein and Boxer were working furiously that same day to write their own version of the Hunter legislation. Said Boxer spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz: “This is a California matter, so the California senators are going to take the lead. We would like Sen. Sessions to support our bill and hope that we will have consensus on this issue.”

Perhaps it's instructive to note that Sessions is a Republican, like the three congressmen from San Diego who wrote the House-passed Mount Soledad bill. Perhaps Hunter wanted a fellow Republican, even if he is from Alabama, to take the lead in the Senate. Perhaps Feinstein and Boxer didn't appreciate that.

By the end of the day, Feinstein and Boxer apparently concluded that Hunter's bill was as good as any they were going to write, because they abandoned their effort and endorsed Hunter's measure.

Which seemed to clear the way for Sessions to try – once again – to bring the issue to a vote.


So it came as yet another surprise when a different senator – or perhaps senators – objected to a vote. Senators are allowed to conduct this maneuver anonymously, and even Boxer and Feinstein claimed they could not ascertain which lawmakers were holding up the vote, or for what reasons.

This went on for days. The reason for the hold might have been something as simple as a senator wanting time to read the bill more closely. It might have been a bit more complicated – such as the American Civil Liberties Union working through some senator to derail the bill entirely. In the end, the anonymous lawmaker(s) lifted the hold, and the vote went through.

Seemingly swiftly. Seemingly decisively. But as we've said, few things ever go that smoothly in politics.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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