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Congress Gets Rolling On Future Primary Calendar

The ongoing argument about 2008's front-loaded primary calendar and the role played by states like Iowa and New Hampshire became part of the Congressional Record today, with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee holding a hearing on legislation that would create a regional primary system.

Amid the debate over the Iraq war, the nomination of a new attorney general, and several unfinished spending bills, the hearing garnered little notice inside the Beltway. But it was the top story this afternoon on the Web site of The Des Moines Register, the largest newspaper in Iowa, home of the first-in-the-nation caucus. As Florida and Michigan have tossed aside party rules and scheduled January primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire have been forced to consider dates earlier than ever -- possibly even in 2007 -- in order to maintain their traditional role in the nomination process.

The legislation would divide the county into four regions. Each presidential election cycle, the regions would rotate the order in which they hold primaries. The bill would maintain Iowa and New Hampshire's place at the front of the calendar. Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., supports the proposal. "The presidential nominating process is too important to our democracy to allow the pell-mell scramble to continue," she said.

But others believe the process is best left to state governments and the parties themselves. Favoring that approach was Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro, who testified at the hearing. But he conceded that federal pressure, even in the form of a hearing, could make an impact, saying "If this isn't a notice to the parties, nothing is." Both the Democratic and Republican parties sent letters to the committee outlining their opposition to the legislation.

Congress' biggest obstacle in trying to restore some order and pacing to the process may be the Constitution itself, which leaves election administration to the states. Yet while it mentions congressional elections and the presidential general election, it makes no mention of party primaries -- the development of political parties was something the framers didn't predict.

For those hoping for some federal action, however, today's hearing is only an incremental step. But by starting now, perhaps a solution can be reached in time for 2012.

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