Reid, Frist Plan Joint Meetings
Senate leaders have struck a deal in which they will begin holding bipartisan listening sessions with rank-and-file Senators, an effort aimed at healing the partisan wounds ripped open by the recent showdown over federal judicial nominees.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plan to conduct joint office hours each week to allow Senators to meet with them face-to-face to address specific issues or air grievances.
The bipartisan meetings, which are scheduled to begin next Thursday, come as professional and personal relations have reached an all-time low in a chamber once proud of its clubby atmosphere.
Disagreements over major policy initiatives exacerbated by political ill will continue to linger from the 2004 elections, when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was defeated for re-election and President Bush won a second term by a narrow margin.
“I hope it will help,” Reid said of the weekly meetings in a brief interview Tuesday. The Minority Leader said little else about the meetings, noting an official announcement would be forthcoming.
News of this latest attempt to rebuild trust between the two political parties was met with equal doses of optimism and skepticism.
Some Senators questioned how leaders so diametrically opposed on policy matters can find a middle ground on legislative issues.
“It is possible we could see some decline in partisanship but I am not over-impressed with that potential,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “If you believe in bigger government and bigger taxes, if you believe in more welfare and governmental intervention in the economy, talking is not going to bridge the gap between somebody who believes in less government and less taxes and less regulation.”
“I would encourage the Majority Leader to reach out, but hold his wallet,” Sessions added.
Others suggested that Democrats and Republicans need to stand down now, before relations between the two parties reach a point where they are beyond repair.
“I give great credit to both of them if that is the case,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “It would be great if we could work together in the best interest of our country rather than have this ‘just say no policy’ of the Democrats and sometimes some of the extremist approaches on both sides.”
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he, too, is supportive of the effort and noted the inability of the two political parties to reach agreement has affected the legislative process.
“I am for anything that makes the Senate a more cohesive and productive institution,” Durbin said. “We have certainly wasted a lot of time because of partisanship and disunity.”
But just as Frist and Reid were privately laying the groundwork to rebuild the bridges, publicly there was no shortage of signs that relations between the two parties remained strained.
Reid opened his Tuesday news conference by charging that Republicans are not able to realize there is a “common center in America today” eager for the Senate to address the “staggering deficit” and fix problems with the nation’s education and health care systems.
Instead, the Minority Leader chastised Bush for nominating federal judges with extreme political views.
“The sad part about it, I don’t see the majority here recognizing that there is” a common center, Reid said. “We are still spending hour after hour after hour on these judges, when all it would take is for the president to send us some consensus nominations. We’re going to work our way through these, but I would hope that we could get to the issues that are so important to the country.”
Two hours earlier, Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) accused the Democrats of stalling action on legislative matters by filibustering Bush’s judicial nominees and thereby chewing up valuable floor time.
“Continuing this concept of moving forward with the Americans’ agenda, I hope the Democrats are now ready to join us in that,” Kyl said.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on the nomination of Janice Rogers Brown this afternoon for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Brown was one of several nominees Democrats blocked in the 108th Congress, but the filibuster was dropped last month as part of the deal to avoid what would lead to a “nuclear” meltdown in the Senate.