By Betsy Rothstein - 05/24/06 12:00 AM EDT
It isn’t tough these days to coax a lawmaker into badmouthing a colleague from an opposing party. More than the usual partisan bickering that occurs in a heated election year, rancor is settling in as part of the Capitol Hill scenery.
A quick mention of House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) is enough to send the freshman lawmaker into a tailspin of insults.
He added, “The Democrats want to do anything they can to beat us, so they don’t want to cooperate on anything.”
Politics aside, McHenry said, there are “nice” people on the other side of the aisle. Asked to name a few, he paused several seconds before replying: “Hoyer is a gentleman. Harold Ford is a nice man,” referring to Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.).
But he quickly made it clear that he doesn’t see eye to eye with them politically: “Their ideology is harmful to America, but they are nice people.”
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who is leaving Congress after being indicted by a Texas grand jury, blames Democrats for the poisonous partisan environment.
“It is the Democrats who have no inclination to work on a bipartisan basis,” he said. “Their definition of bipartisan is to buy into their partisanship or they won’t work with you.”
Not surprisingly, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) sees things differently: “Republicans are running scared,” she said. “Their fortunes fall daily.”
In an election season, most communication is heated and intensely competitive between the two parties. But is this season any worse than others?
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) called the current state of affairs “poisonous” and a “feeding frenzy” intent on “finding something that anyone has done wrong.”
He said his colleagues “are a little depressed” and explained that “there is a real anxiety level among all of us. Why are we out to destroy each other?”
The sentiment, however, doesn’t stop Rohrabacher from jumping onto the partisan hate train: “Democrats started the feeding frenzy when they heard about [Jack] Abramoff, and now it has gotten out of hand.”
House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) held a press conference in the Capitol in late March and asked with disdain, “Can you imagine a Speaker Pelosi?”
In such a critical election year, Pelosi herself rarely shies away from taking the partisan pot shot. She, her aides and loyal Democrats use the mantra “culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence” daily to describe Republican counterparts. The message is designed to antagonize Republicans and paint them with the same broad brush. Democrats are hoping voters will carry the message with them to the polls and help catapult Democrats into the majority.
But partisanship is not just an election-year communications strategy. Sometimes it gets personal. Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) nearly came to blows in a recent argument on immigration reform.
“The episode with Tancredo was a mistake,” Gutierrez says, explaining that he got caught up in the “heat of the moment.”
He says he believes that immigration reform will not happen without bipartisanship. “Sometimes bipartisanship means acting in the absence of party ambitions,” he said.
Have he and Tancredo shaken hands and made up? “No, I haven’t seen him,” Gutierrez said.
The skirmish between Gutierrez and Tancredo isn’t isolated. In the summer of 2004, Vice President Cheney told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to “[expletive] yourself” during an encounter on the Senate floor.
And last November on the House floor, Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) called Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) a “Howdy Doody-looking nimrod.” Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) earned outrage and condemnation for her now infamous floor blunder last November when, in response to a call by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, to pull troops out of Iraq, she said, “cowards cut and run.”
“Well, the way I would describe it, it’s very confusing,” Berry said. “We’ve got a lot of members — their heart tells them one thing, their constituents tell them another and their leadership tells them another.”
Even so, one could argue that life in Congress is a lot less partisan than it used to be. There is, after all, none of the physical violence that occurred among lawmakers in the 1700s and 1800s, such as the infamous caning of 1856.
That year, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks (D) entered the Senate chamber and beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner (R) unconscious.
In a 1793 dispute, a House member challenged a former member to a duel. Other dueling incidents left members bloody and, in some cases, dead.
Strangely enough, in the midst of all this vitriol there are always some lawmakers out to prove that bipartisanship can exist even under the worst of circumstances.
Last week, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) hosted his sixth annual “Ninth District Day” in which 100 constituents came to Washington to listen to a bipartisan panel of lawmakers, political officials and observers speak about life in Washington. Boehner was scheduled to be one of two Republican speakers, but 15 minutes before his allotted time he canceled, even though the event was solidified two months ago.
Smith, gracious about the majority leader’s bailing out, told the crowd, “Something came up, so he will not be able to be here.” Later in the hallway, he added, “I don’t think it’s a sign of partisanship. I’m fine. We’re very busy people.”
Still, Smith, whose district was a swing district when he came to Congress in 1996, sees a deep divide. “It’s worse now [than] in the 10 years that I have been here,” he says. “Partisanship has settled in.”
In the past, he says, lawmakers would take “shots at each other and then you work together. The working part is getting less and less.”
Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network told the crowd, “I don’t think the American people like the intensity of the anger. It’s kind of sucked, frankly.”
These days, McHenry doesn’t warm to the idea of having Pelosi reach out to him. “I don’t see Nancy Pelosi coming across the aisle to embrace me anytime soon,” he said.