Old ways not obsolete

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And in the U.S. Senate, that’s not a bad thing.

On Tuesday, the upper chamber saw an eleventh-hour deal to avert the so-called nuclear option, a rule change to alter Senate procedure that would have multiplied the level of polarization and distrust in the body exponentially. It was cobbled together by a bunch of old-timers who remember a Senate of days gone by. 

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Later that hot afternoon, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) announced his plans to seek a fourth Senate term, and in less than an hour was challenged by Liz Cheney, the 46-year-old daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney who moved to Wyoming last year and allegedly told Enzi she would run if he retired, but then decided to challenge him anyway. Enzi, who has been friends with Dick Cheney for 30 years, was dumbfounded by the news, saying “I thought we were friends.” 

Cheney, in a video, excoriated President Obama, but not Enzi. She hinted that Enzi needs the boot because it is “necessary for a new generation of leaders to step up to the plate,” because “we can no longer afford simply to get along to go along.”

Unlike other old GOP bulls bounced from office in primary challenges by younger insurgent candidates in 2010 and 2012, Enzi has no record of aiding the enemy party or ignoring his home state. But in the current Republican Party, long-term incumbents are fuddy-duddies at best, and experienced legislators are sell-outs or worse.   

Take fifth-term Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who worked day and night to try and prevent Democrats from going through with the nuclear option. Working apart from but in consultation with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), McCain worked his many, longstanding relationships — including an often tense one with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — to achieve a compromise that would at least create a truce. Now, particularly with his recent involvement in passing comprehensive immigration reform, no matter how McCain ran from his record of bipartisanship and cooperation in 2008 and 2010, his hands are forever stained from cutting deals with Democrats in the age of Obama. 

Meanwhile, the younger crowd, which encouraged heretofore unseemly filibusters on nominees for secretary of Defense and director of the CIA, grumbled at the deal McCain and Reid hatched. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was called famously by McCain a “wacko bird,” tweeted his assessment of the deal, writing “Today – re: the so-called nuclear option, Senate Republicans preserved the right to surrender in the future.”

McConnell, despite the fact that he and Reid cannot stand each other, supported the deal and McCain’s effort to reach it, no matter the arrows he could take for doing so, either here or back at home on the campaign trail as he works to get reelected to a sixth term.

After all , it has been McConnell and Vice President Biden — another codger who served in the Senate for decades — who have cut more deals to address the nation’s economic and fiscal crises during the Obama presidency than Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the president himself.

Like so many senior Democrats and Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) worried Monday that the younger senators could prevail before a filibuster deal was reached. Alexander lamented to reporters “there are too many senators who don’t understand the precedent of a Senate that can change the majority anytime it wants to.” The 73-year-old two-term governor seeking a third Senate term stepped down from leadership two years ago in order to help break Senate gridlock. He voted for the Senate immigration bill last month — and yes, conservative groups are hoping to defeat him too.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.