Bi­par­ti­san­ship is dy­ing in the Se­nate

The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY) - - Opinion - Cokie and Steve Roberts Colum­nists

Two days, not even a month apart, re­veal a great deal about the vi­cious and ven­omous cul­ture grip­ping Wash­ing­ton to­day, es­pe­cially in the U.S. Se­nate.

On Sept. 1, John McCain’s fu­neral at the Na­tional Cathe­dral cel­e­brated the tra­di­tion of bi­par­ti­san­ship that marked the Ari­zona Repub­li­can’s en­tire ca­reer. McCain trav­eled the world with Democrats, co-spon­sored count­less bills with friends across the aisle and asked two of them to de­liver eu­lo­gies at his fu­neral: former Sen. Joe Lieber­man, and Barack Obama — the man who thwarted McCain’s own pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions.

On Sept. 27, the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee held a hear­ing on the nom­i­na­tion of Judge Brett Ka­vanaugh to the Supreme Court. Raw re­sent­ment and re­crim­i­na­tion be­tween the par­ties filled the room as se­na­tors ac­cused each other of de­ceit, de­cep­tion and bad faith. Lind­sey Gra­ham, a South Carolina Repub­li­can, reached an apex of an­i­mos­ity when he snarled at the Democrats: “Boy, y’all want power. God, I hope you never get it.”

John McCain, Gra­ham’s old friend, would have wept at those words.

Then some­thing en­tirely un­ex­pected hap­pened. Two se­na­tors stepped out of their trenches, met in No Man’s Land and bro­kered a brief truce. Repub­li­can Jeff Flake of Ari­zona and Demo­crat Chris Coons of Delaware con­vinced their en­raged col­leagues to ac­cept a one-week pause in the con­fir­ma­tion process and al­low the FBI to ex­plore charges of sex­ual mis­con­duct against Ka­vanaugh.

Their ac­tion was so stun­ning be­cause it is so rare in to­day’s Wash­ing­ton, where com­pro­mise, one of the no­blest words in the po­lit­i­cal lan­guage, is de­mo­nized as be­trayal. Flake is Ex­hibit A, forced to re­tire be­cause his crit­i­cisms of Pres­i­dent Trump would doom him in a Repub­li­can pri­mary.

On “60 Min­utes,” Scott Pel­ley brought up the deal with Coons and asked Flake: “Could you have done this if you were run­ning for re-elec­tion?”

Flake re­sponded: “No, not a chance.” Asked why, Flake ex­plained: “There’s no value to reach­ing across the aisle. There’s no cur­rency for that any­more. There’s no in­cen­tive.”

Of course, the com­pro­mise im­me­di­ately showed cracks. Repub­li­cans and Democrats feuded over the scope of the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion and Mitch McCon­nell, the Repub­li­can leader, vowed to press ahead with a vote on Ka­vanaugh as quickly as pos­si­ble. The Se­nate was re­turn­ing to nor­mal.

The dis­ap­pear­ance of bi­par­ti­san­ship is hardly new. At a prayer break­fast in 2010, Pres­i­dent Obama de­clared that “some­thing is bro­ken” in Wash­ing­ton and lamented: “At times it seems like we’re un­able to lis­ten to one an­other; to have at once a se­ri­ous and civil de­bate. ... It makes pol­i­tics an all-or-noth­ing sport.”

But the long de­te­ri­o­ra­tion into tribal war­fare is only get­ting worse. And while there are many rea­sons be­hind this trend, one of the most im­por­tant ex­pla­na­tions is the chang­ing na­ture of the Se­nate it­self.

Two vi­brant tra­di­tions have vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared: pro­gres­sive Repub­li­cans, many from the North­east; and con­ser­va­tive Democrats, mainly from south­ern and bor­der states. These were of­ten the deal­mak­ers, the con­sen­sus-builders, who bridged the gap be­tween the par­ties. With their ex­tinc­tion, the cen­ter of the Se­nate has hol­lowed out. The bridges have col­lapsed.

Look at two of the most con­tentious Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion fights in mod­ern mem­ory: Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991. Bork, ap­pointed by Ron­ald Rea­gan, was de­feated with the help of six Repub­li­can mod­er­ates, in­clud­ing three from New Eng­land: Robert Stafford of Ver­mont, Low­ell We­icker of Con­necti­cut and John Chafee of Rhode Is­land.

To­day, Su­san Collins of Maine is the only Repub­li­can left in the en­tire New Eng­land del­e­ga­tion. She has shown an oc­ca­sional will­ing­ness to defy Pres­i­dent Trump and work with Democrats on some is­sues, but it’s far harder to act coura­geously when you’re all alone — a prob­lem her New Eng­land pre­de­ces­sors did not face 31 years ago.

Thomas, ap­pointed by Ge­orge H.W. Bush, was con­firmed by two votes with the help of 11 Democrats, most of them South­ern­ers like John Breaux and Ben­nett John­ston of Lou­i­si­ana, and Wy­che Fowler and Sam Nunn of Ge­or­gia. Out­side of two rapidly chang­ing states, Vir­ginia and Flor­ida, only two Democrats rep­re­sent the Deep South to­day: Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Vir­ginia. Like Collins, they’re pretty lonely.

When Pel­ley asked Coons if the Se­nate of John McCain still ex­ists, the Delaware Demo­crat replied, “It has to ex­ist. Our na­tion can’t sur­vive if it doesn’t ex­ist.”

He’s cor­rect about that, but two days in Septem­ber show how far the Se­nate has de­clined into a toxic waste dump of hos­til­ity, badly in need of recla­ma­tion and re­vival.

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