Bipartisanship school begins ? brawl scheduled after class

Newly elected senators will receive pointers about how to work across the aisle and make friends with members of the opposition party — before “street life” in the Senate teaches them to start bashing in each other’s heads.

A group of senators, concerned that conditions in the Senate have gotten overly partisan in recent years, this year asked Senate leaders if they could get involved in orientation programs for new senators, hoping to instill lasting habits of cooperation.
Newly elected senators will receive pointers about how to work across the aisle and make friends with members of the opposition party — before “street life” in the Senate teaches them to start bashing in each other’s heads.

A group of senators, concerned that conditions in the Senate have gotten overly partisan in recent years, this year asked Senate leaders if they could get involved in orientation programs for new senators, hoping to instill lasting habits of cooperation.
patrick g. ryan
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.): “Trusting relationships” in the Senate.

“What’s missing in the Senate in large part are trusting relationships and getting to know each other in a personal way,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has worked with Republicans on legal reform issues. “If we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve always gotten.”

After witnessing some heated partisan battles in the Senate this session, Carper, along with Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio), asked to play a role in this year’s orientation.

Each of them had participated in effective orientation programs when they became governors before beginning their Senate careers, except for Pryor, who served as a state attorney general.

“We all remember how that introduction across party lines helped us be more effective governors,” said Alexander, adding that Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) “jumped at the opportunity” to refashion the orientation sessions.

(Frist and Daschle know something about partisan tensions. Republicans blame Daschle for orchestrating the filibuster of several of the president’s judicial nominees; Frist went to South Dakota to campaign against Daschle, who was defeated in a bitter race against former Rep. John Thune [R-S.D.]).

Some of the orientation events are lifted from the National Governors Association program. New senators will be assigned two “mentors,” one senator from each party, to guide them in the early going. Other senators are serving as “faculty,” teaching the newcomers how to set up an office and hire a staff, while tutoring them on parliamentary procedure.

A session yesterday dealt with bridging the political divide. Alexander said that he used to see his colleague Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) more often when the two served concurrently as governors, since senators spend most of their time in their offices or in separate party strategy sessions.

“There are no meetings, no occasions where Republicans and Democrats can literally find time to talk over issues,” he said.

Alexander noted that despite GOP gains in the Senate, 60 votes will be needed to accomplish anything because of filibuster rules. “We need to be proud of our victories and stick to our principles,” he said. “But we also need to reach across the aisle and make some relations. Otherwise we’ll be stuck in the mud.”

This year, as in past years, a group of centrists hopes to force some bipartisan compromises by forming a unified faction. Carper said a group of centrists including Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is expected to meet with incoming Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this week. A bipartisan group held similar meetings at the start of the current Congress, but even some Democratic centrists complained that President Bush pushed through tax cuts by picking off just enough Democrats to
prevail.

Many of the new crop of GOP senators are full-throated conservatives from strongly Republican states, giving them less incentive than some incoming classes to forge bipartisan alliances. Incoming Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who supports some abortion rights, stands out among the group for having a major difference with his party leadership. Incoming Sen. Ken Salazar, one of only two new Democrats, ran a centrist campaign in the purple state of Colorado.

Still, if partisanship is a problem — and not everyone agrees it is — the main culprits may not be with the new senators, but the old ones. “We’re not going to send anybody to reeducation camp,” said Carper. “But my hope is we can develop trusting interpersonal relationships.”