As the Senate headed for a showdown this week over a Democratic threat to erode the filibuster rule, a senior Republican was musing about the party leaders he’d known over his long career.
It should never have come to this, he said sadly. Previous leaders — like Republican Howard Baker and Democrat Robert Byrd — would have found a compromise long before the entire Senate came within hours of blowing itself up. Their counterparts today — Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell — barely speak to each other, except to hurl insults.
Fortunately, the crisis was averted because Republican John McCain and Democrat Chuck Schumer — who also helped craft the bipartisan immigration bill — again acted like grown-ups and saved the day, brokering a deal that forced both sides to bend a bit. Republicans released most of the president’s nominees they’d been stalling; Democrats pulled back on their challenge to the rules.
During critical negotiations, the official leaders were largely sidelined. As the Washington Post reported, “left to their own, Reid and McConnell could not have reached this pact,” and their “treacherous relationship … leaves the Senate in a dangerous position going forward on critical legislative negotiations.”
This whole incident reinforces the point made by our Republican source. The Senate suffers today from a profound failure of leadership — in both parties. McConnell said recently that if Reid changed the rules he’d “be remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever.” Reid surely thinks the same damning description would apply to McConnell as well.
The poisonous connection between the two leaders lacks both affection and trust, and with good reason. Both accuse the other of going back on his word and both have legitimate grounds for complaint.
Under McConnell, Republicans have badly abused the filibuster, blocking numerous nominations and requiring 60 votes on even minor issues. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico is right when he argues, “Let’s not let the tyranny of the minority continue.”
But it was Reid who provoked the latest standoff, advocating changes in a rule he had ardently defended during the Bush administration when Republicans complained that Democrats were unfairly blocking the president’s judicial choices. His insistence on pushing the Senate to the brink of disaster was irresponsible and unnecessary.
The two leaders, however, are also shaped and shackled by the lawmakers they try to lead, and the composition of the Senate is changing rapidly. For the worse.
Eight years ago, a bipartisan “Gang of 14” forged a compromise that defused the confrontation over Bush’s judges. Only five of those 14 remain in the Senate today. Some senior lawmakers have died in office (Democrats Robert Byrd and Dan Inouye) or retired voluntarily (Republican John Warner). Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, herself the daughter of a senator, told the Post that the chamber sorely misses those “senators who carried with them the sense of the history and the traditions of the Senate.”
Moderates in both parties have found life on Capitol Hill increasingly uncomfortable and unproductive. Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine quit with a blast of frustration: “What I like to call the sensible center has now virtually disappeared in Washington.” Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman also retired, estranged from his party after losing a primary to a left-wing challenger who derided him for working with Republicans like McCain.
Dealmakers need partners, and the center of the Senate has hollowed out. Still, leadership can make a difference. As that senior Republican told us, McConnell and Reid have forgotten the lessons preached by Howard Baker, who served as Republican leader in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
In 1998, at a convocation celebrating his career, Baker recalled that during his tenure he often found himself “engaged in fire-breathing passionate debate with my fellow Senators” about incendiary issues from Watergate to the Panama Canal.
“But no sooner had the final word been spoken and the last vote taken,” he said, “than I would usually walk to the desk of my most recent antagonist, extend a hand of friendship, and solicit his support for the next issue for the following day.”
“People may think we’re crazy when we do that,” Baker conceded. “Or perhaps they think our debates are fraudulent to begin with. … But we aren’t crazy and we aren’t frauds.” These rituals are “as natural as breathing here in the Senate” and validate Lincoln’s adage: “We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.”
Like many politicians in Washington today, Reid and McConnell are enemies, not friends. They should listen to Baker. And Lincoln.
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Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.