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As Senate Returns to Angry ‘Normal,’ What Will Get Done?

It certainly didn’t take long for the Senate to get back to fractious normal after a moment of good feeling engendered by last week’s filibuster deal. [IMGCAP(1)]

Just three days after the agreement was announced, Democrats stopped John Bolton’s nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations and Republicans again were shouting, “Obstructionism!”

You could be dismayed by the development, but hardly surprised. After all, a doughty band of just 14 Senators — seven of each party — saved the body from institutional meltdown by blocking Democrats’ judicial filibusters, the GOP’s unprecedented imposition of majority rule as the means of changing Senate rules and a retaliatory Democratic blockage of most legislative action.

The other 86 Senators were prepared to let parliamentary disaster unfold, showing more loyalty to their respective parties and ideological agendas than to the Senate or the achievement of the public’s business.

So, at the earliest opportunity — the ideologically charged Bolton matter — the Senate descended into gridlock again, with Democrats using the filibuster to delay the nomination and force the Bush administration to produce documents they hope will cause the nominee’s disqualification.

Only three Democratic moderates — who also participated in the “Gang of 14” judicial agreement — departed from partisan formation on Bolton. Nominally, Democrats (and a few Republicans) oppose him because he’s a mean guy. Actually, it’s because he’s a Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld foreign policy hard-liner.

So, is there any reason to think Democrats and Republicans can cooperate on such issues as energy, immigration, Social Security and health care?

Well, a little. While 86 Senators weren’t party to the May 23 agreement on judicial nominations, many of them expressed relief — even joy — that it was reached and realized that it saved the Senate from disaster.

Also, it’s a fact of Senate life that virtually nothing important can get done without a measure of bipartisanship. This year, Democrats have crossed the line in substantial numbers to pass class-action and bankruptcy reform legislation and a highway bill.

The same has happened in the House, a body that’s almost totally mired in partisanship. In a rare example of Republicans joining with Democrats to buck the GOP majority, the House passed legislation to lift President Bush’s limits on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

When the Gang of 14 briefly took control of the Senate and avoided the so-called nuclear standoff, there was a brief flurry of talk that perhaps moderates of both parties could unify and take command on other issues.

It’s a tantalizing thought, and theoretically possible in the Senate, but it’s not likely to happen. For one thing, party leaders, the people who control the Senate agenda, are totally representative of their partisan caucuses.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), despite a moderate demeanor and the cautionary experience of ex-Sen. Tom Daschle’s (S.D.) defeat for obstructing Bush’s agenda, has repeatedly expressed — in word and deed — his party colleagues’ revulsion at Bush and determination to block practically everything he stands for.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) not only got his job with White House support, but also is running for president and is eager to curry favor with his party’s conservative activist base.

A bipartisan Centrist Coalition exists — and it includes many of the Gang of 14 — but as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), one of the leaders of the 14, observed, it’s more of a discussion group than an action group.

It hasn’t actually taken command of any legislative situation since the early days of the first Bush administration, when then-Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) and Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) combined to limit Bush’s first tax cut from $1.6 trillion to $1.3 trillion.

As Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in an interview, the seven Republicans who were part of the Gang of 14 are “not an organization and aren’t trying to be an organization. They were looking for a way to defuse an intractable problem. They avoided a train wreck. Their hope, and most of our caucus’, is that we can get back to normal here.”

Alexander, even though he was not one of the 14, inspired its work with a speech March 9 in which he promised not to filibuster any judicial nominee and suggested that if other Senators made the same pledge, the nuclear option dispute would be solved.

The idea was taken up by Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Nelson, who led Democrats among the 14. Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) initially led the Republicans but was pressured by home-state conservatives into dropping the effort, which was picked up by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Alexander told me that “it’s unrealistic to expect that we’re not going to have big arguments. We’re here for that. Our politics are about big, important conflicts of principle. You can’t debate Social Security, immigration and the war in Iraq without having arguments.”

He added that “asking Senators why they’re arguing is like asking Johnny Cash why he’s singing. That’s what we do. Nobody should be surprised that we have differences of opinion, but they should be disappointed if, after we argue for awhile, we are unable to form coalitions and solve these problems.”

Alexander doesn’t think much of formal coalitions. “If you try to create an ideological group to do that, it defeats the purpose,” he told me. “You become ‘the centrists’ or ‘the moderates.’”

Things get done, he said, when “four or five Senators sit around and talk about, say, illegal immigration and come up with different ideas even though they may be of different parties.”

The unfortunate reality is, he said, “there’s almost no opportunity for that. The only times we have regular bipartisan gatherings is at prayer breakfasts on Wednesdays and Thursdays and on CODELs,” the Congressional delegations that make foreign inspection trips.

“The rest of the time, you’re in team meetings or policy lunches. You never have time to swap ideas with anyone on the other team,” Alexander added.

Nelson, who agrees there’s too little inter-party contact, said he hopes nevertheless that the judiciary deal could engender “cooperation, collaboration and mutual trust on other issues.”

“We’ve gone from the nuclear cycle to the spin cycle. That’s where we are now. I hope we can go on to the business cycle.”

The first test, he told me before it happened last Thursday, was the Bolton nomination. It turned out that Senate machine ground to a halt.

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