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Empty Promises

As Senate Democrats were preparing to go to the mattresses over Iraq voting procedures and as Republicans threatened to stop all activity over a judicial appointment, it’s worth recalling what Senate leaders were promising at the outset of the 110th Congress.

On Jan. 4, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared on the floor that “last November, the voters sent us a message — Democrats and Republicans. The voters are upset with Congress and the partisan gridlock. The voters want a government that focuses on their needs. The voters want change. Together, we must deliver that change.”

Minutes later, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) observed that “the challenges ahead will not be met if we do nothing to overcome the partisanship that has come to characterize this body over the past several years. A culture of partisanship over principle represents a grave threat to the Senate’s best tradition as a place of constructive cooperation. It undermines the spirit and the purpose of this institution. And we must do something to reverse its course.”

Six months on, the Senate has devolved into a nonstop brawl. The House, where leaders made let’s-work-together promises of their own, also is a cauldron of partisanship, but at least there the rules permit a majority to rule.

But together, they’ve been able to pass just three pieces of significant legislation — a hike in the minimum wage, expansion of stem-cell research funding and a supplemental appropriation to fund the Iraq War. Only the first was directly signed into law. The second was vetoed by President Bush. The third was vetoed then passed.

Partisan warfare and inaction on issues from health care to immigration to energy — even lobbying and ethics reform, once the top priority for this Congress — has reduced respect for the legislative branch to its lowest level ever. Respect for the presidency is not much higher.

Who’s to blame? Senate Democrats accuse Senate Republicans of “obstructionism” — systematic refusal to grant unanimous consent so that bills can be voted upon. Senate Republicans blame Reid for invoking cloture to stifle full debate and the offering of amendments.

The level of rancor is escalating now because Democrats are frustrated that Republicans are insisting on a 60-vote threshold on Iraq War amendments — as though Democrats in the past have not used the 60-vote requirement when it suited them. Republicans are threatening to create procedural chaos and allow little or no action on the floor if Democrats block a single appellate court nominee.

In January, Senators of both parties gathered in the Old Senate Chamber in what McConnell described as “a small act of bipartisanship” that he hoped would lead to a restoration of the Senate’s reputation. Now, perhaps, Senators should regather there and contemplate their current level of public esteem.

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