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Comity in Senate Takes a Hit

As Senators eye the first Congressional recess of the 110th Congress late next week, they prepare to leave a chamber that has taken a decidedly different turn from four weeks ago, when Members arrived in Washington, D.C., pledging to bridge the party divide and work together.

There have been glimmers of bipartisanship in the Senate over the last month, but this week’s impasse over how to debate President Bush’s proposed troop “surge” plan in Iraq has cast doubt over whether Democrats and Republicans can really get along over the next two years. What’s more, the Senate is likely to spend the coming weeks and months weighing in on increasingly controversial topics like federal spending and domestic priorities that will further test Senators’ ability to compromise.

“The gloves have come off,” said a senior GOP Senate staffer.

Republicans and Democrats alike say they hold out hope that the narrowly divided Senate will still be able to negotiate agreements moving ahead. But Senators in both parties acknowledge it will become increasingly difficult as the clock ticks toward 2008, when the White House and more than 30 Senate seats are up for grabs.

“I hope we can find a way to get along, because the issues confronting our country are so enormous,” said Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). “It takes Republicans and Democrats to solve those issues. I hope bipartisanship can be resurrected.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said Republicans are losing faith that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his Democratic troops are truly interested in getting along. Even beyond the Iraq issue, Kyl said, Democrats have been quick to file cloture to cut off debate and prevent the GOP from fully participating in legislating.

“We’re not getting started in a very bipartisan way, and in fact I would suggest the opposite,” Kyl said. “It’s all talk, and no action.”

Underscoring the growing partisan rift, Democrats put the blame squarely back on the GOP, which they say is playing games with Senate procedures and blocking efforts to debate legislation like the recent troop increase. One well-placed Senate Democratic aide said, “Talk of cooperation across the aisle sounded good, but the honeymoon is officially over.”

Reid seemed to take it a step further on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, tiptoeing into the personal when he questioned the motives of Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the sponsor of a GOP leadership-backed Iraq resolution opposing a cutoff of funds for the troops.

The Majority Leader said Gregg was trying to block the debate on the war and divert attention away from real issue before the Senate — the troop surge. Reid said Gregg reminded him “of somebody that comes into the basketball game not to score points, just to kind of rough people up, just to kind of get the game going in a different direction.”

Jim Manley, spokesman for Reid, said his boss has tried to make opportunities for Republicans to have their say and for the two parties to come together. But, he acknowledged there are “plenty of potential flashpoints” ahead for the Senate, and this week’s Iraq debate “may just be a taste of things to come.”

Democrats and Republicans kicked off the 110th Congress on Jan. 4, vowing to work together to solve the problems facing the country. The White House weighed in too, saying that passing legislation and getting results was key to winning back the trust of an electorate that has become increasingly wary of its government.

As part of that, Senators launched several initiatives to enable across-the-aisle relationships, including setting up new opportunities for both social and legislative bridge-building. Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) launched one of those efforts with the creation of regular Tuesday bipartisan breakfast meetings for Senators.

Alexander said Tuesday that despite some bumps along the way, he believes Senators are still trying to work together, and he gave credit to Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for trying to wade through their differences to advance issues like ethics reform and a minimum-wage increase. “The issues that are here are here because they are emotional and difficult and hard to solve. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be in the United States Senate.”

Still, Alexander acknowledged that the pressures to sideline bipartisanship are great and will only grow as time goes on, saying: “That will happen. By next year, we probably won’t be doing much.”

With that in mind, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she can’t give up faith so early in the 110th Congress that bipartisanship is extinct even with the recent breakdowns over how to debate the conflict in Iraq. “There are some very serious differences in opinion,” she said. “I hope we can still come together on some issues.”

Added Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.): “I can’t get up in the morning if I give up.”

But privately, both sides already are preparing for how they will posture themselves heading into the weeklong February recess, which begins next Friday. Democrats and Republicans alike are looking at their competing party messages on Iraq and spending priorities and acknowledge they are likely to leave town with weapons drawn.

Said a Republican Senate aide: “It’s wonderful to hold hands and be pleasant, but it is more important we fight for what we believe in.”

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