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Bridging a Partisan Divide: Orientation And Beyond

Nine new Senators convened Sunday in the Capitol to begin a four-day orientation designed to encourage bipartisan cooperation.

No one will be surprised if by January the Senate reverts instead to partisan business as usual because almost all forces push that way. Cable news channels manufacture conflict. Outside interest groups publish scorecards. Wrangling in the House spills into the Senate. Narrow Senate margins add to contentiousness.

On top of that, the schedule has crowded out most opportunities for Senators of opposite parties to develop the personal relationships that usually precede working relationships. Retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) recalls that 30 years ago Senate couples of both parties had supper together on Tuesday nights. Now no such plans are safe because the Senate often meets on Tuesday night. Once, Senate families got together on weekends. Now most fly home.

About the only opportunities Senators have today for getting to know one another across party lines occur at prayer meetings or when milling around during votes or traveling overseas. Otherwise, we spend most of our spare time in team meetings trying to defeat each other.

Team meetings are not the most promising incubator for bipartisan consensus. And consensus is exactly what is required to achieve a result. With the magic numbers now 60, the number of votes necessary to end a filibuster, and 100, for unanimous consent, not much happens without consensus.

Some find achieving consensus inefficient and unprincipled. But the founders intended the Senate to be different. As George Washington said, “We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” The hardest work we do involves resolving conflicts among principles in which both Democrats and Republicans believe. For example, a solution to illegal immigration is a conflict between equal opportunity and rule of law.

The orientation began with Senate Historian Richard Baker and concludes with Brian Lamb, the C-SPAN founder. During the orientation, Senators of both parties are leading sessions on the nuts and bolts of Senate operation.

We — along with Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — suggested this bipartisan emphasis to the leaders. They welcomed the idea and asked us to help design it. Three of us had been chairmen of the National Governors Association and had seen how its orientation programs help governors work across party lines to be more effective.

Here are three more modest steps that might be taken toward bipartisan cooperation:

• No votes after 6 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. This would free those evenings for the kind of social gatherings that once fostered closer working relationships.

• A bipartisan leadership breakfast on Thursdays. Leaders could invite colleagues to join them. There would be no program and no agenda other than a report on schedule. Thirty chiefs of staff from both parties already do this once a month.

• Bipartisan White House meetings — and not just with leadership. President Bush is good at this, Senators appreciate it and it helps set the tone.

We face a plateful of challenges requiring consensus to reach results. For example, the president wants tax reform. The last time that happened Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) worked arm in arm with President Ronald Reagan. We should reform health care, Social Security and immigration. Winning the war on terror and reforming intelligence will take all the imagination we can muster. None of these problems is likely to be solved only in team meetings.

We believe the Senate is at its best when it finds consensus on difficult issues. Recent examples are the work of Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) on intelligence reform, and of Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the No Child Left Behind Act.

The nine new Senators proved their partisan skills on Nov. 2. Now they have the opportunity to demonstrate even more difficult and important skills: helping the Senate achieve the bipartisan consensus necessary to solve real problems.

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) both were chairmen of the National Governors Association before they were elected to the Senate.

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