The Divisions Are Worse Now. Or Are They?

Posted June 9, 2005 at 3:44pm

The Senate, a chamber once proud of its clubby atmosphere, has turned into a political battlefield this year, with Democrats and Republicans skirmishing over everything from President Bush’s call to overhaul Social Security to federal judicial nominations.

Policy fights have clearly turned personal. But has the partisanship reached an all time high in the stately chamber?

It depends.

Relations between the two parties have not always been civil. In the most infamous incident, in 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) entered the Senate chamber and violently hit Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) with his cane. Brooks was outraged over a speech in which Sumner criticized Southerners who supported slavery in Kansas.

In 1902, two South Carolina Senators got into a fight on the Senate floor. A research paper produced by the Senate Historical Office recounts how Sen. Ben Tillman (D) punched Sen. John McLaurin (D) “squarely in the jaw” after McLaurin accused his fellow South Carolinian of a “willful, malicious and deliberate lie.”

Earlier, Tillman said that McLaurin had yielded to “improper influences,” according to the Historical Office. Both Senators were censured for their actions.

Today’s battles aren’t physical. But to many, the anger level does seem to be higher than in the recent past.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), said he believes this is the most divisive Congress he has participated in since being elected in 1976.

“It is the worst I have ever seen it,” Hatch said.

The strained relations were evident last week during the debate over Janice Rogers Brown’s nomination for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) accused Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) of associating Brown, who is black, with the Ku Klux Klan.

Schumer dismissed Sessions’ suggestion, but the back-and-forth between the two Senators raised eyebrows in the chamber.

While relations between Democrats and Republicans has been shaky in recent years, the battle over President Bush’s judicial nominations seems to have exacerbated the political ill will between the two parties.

Just last month, the chamber seemed headed for a meltdown over Democratic filibusters of several of Bush’s judicial nominees. Under pressure from his GOP colleagues and powerful political base, Frist was on the verge of changing the Senate rules to eliminate judicial filibusters. It was dubbed the “nuclear” option to describe the likely aftermath if the Majority Leader was successful in changing the rules. [IMGCAP(1)]

Democrats vowed that if the judicial filibuster was eliminated, they would block all non-military-related legislative items, while refusing to work with Republicans on most other legislative matters. But Frist backed off at the 11th hour after a bipartisan group of Senators struck a deal to provide up-or-down votes for most of the nominees in exchange for keeping the filibuster intact.

“There has been a breakdown in C-O-M-I-T-Y, and it is unfortunate,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a chief architect of the compromise. “I hope now that we have just been to the edge of the precipice we will draw back.”

For McCain’s taste, there has been “a distinct increase in partisanship and lack of bipartisanship.”

Tensions have become so raw that Senate leaders will begin holding joint office hours today in an unusual move that’s designed to cool passions in the chamber.

Hatch described efforts by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to temper the partisanship as a “very, very smart and good thing.”

In addition to the disagreements over judges, there are other reasons why Democrats and Republicans have grown to distrust one another.

Republicans are still bitter over the defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) from the GOP in 2001, an action that vaulted Democrats into the majority. Republicans would regain the majority in 2003 after a bruising campaign that saw the defeat of Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.). In the Cleland race, Democrats charged that Republicans and then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), his challenger, engaged in dirty politics by falsely accusing the Democrat, a veteran who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War, of being unpatriotic.

In 2004, Frist broke Senate tradition by traveling to South Dakota to campaign on behalf of former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) in his ultimately successful bid to defeat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

During the campaign, Republicans successfully tagged Daschle as being an “obstructionist,” a term they continue to use against his former colleagues in an effort to try and convince voters that Democrats are focused solely on blocking Bush’s agenda.

With the advantage now of being able to view the Senate from the outside looking in, Daschle said he thinks the chamber has become “far too political. We don’t have the same comity we once had.”

Not everyone agrees.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a former majority leader, said he thinks there is too much made about the Senate becoming overtly partisan. He said the Democrats are frustrated that “they are not in charge” and described the Democrats’ complaints as “a lot of whining.”

“The Senate is doing fine,” he said.

Reid also believes that too much has been made about how the Senate has evolved in recent years into a partisan battleground.

“I think the change in the Senate that some people write and talk about is magnified,” he said. “I don’t think the change is that drastic. This has been very negative and it is too bad we had this nuclear option thing, but [except] for that, I think we have done pretty well.”

Still, old bulls such as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he has noticed a change in how newer Senators approach their new jobs. Tradition used to dictate that new Senators would “learn the traditions of the Senate” and there was an effort to be more courteous to members of the other political party.

“In my day, when we came, I spent time with Republican and Democratic Senators alike to learn a little bit more about tradition and about the courtesy factor,” said Stevens, who joined the Senate in 1968. “You made friends without regard to what party was involved. You were friends at the beginning of the day and you were friends at the end of the day.”

Don Ritchie, the Associate Senate Historian, said Senators tended to socialize more often before the rise of jet air travel allowed quick trips back home — and before fundraising became a second job.

“There was a lot more socializing,” said Ritchie, who noted that Senators often would play cards and tennis or have leisurely drinks.

As for fundraising, Ritchie said that Senators would not start raising funds until “the year before their reelection.”

Now Ritchie said, “Social engagements are usually geared more towards fundraising rather than just social occasions.”

Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council and a former Republican aide, said he thinks it is “going to be difficult to put the brakes on the polarization in the Senate.”

To do so, Wittmann suggests it will take the intervention of a president willing to set aside differences with the opposition party to restore comity in Congress. But Wittmann said he doesn’t think Bush is the person to do it.

“If anything, the Bush administration has accelerated the polarization,” Wittmann said. “It would take a different type of president we haven’t seen lately.”