The New York Times
May 20, 2005 Friday
Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 5; National Desk; DISPUTE IN THE SENATE: THE CONTEXT; Pg. 16
LENGTH: 1121 words
HEADLINE: Demands of Partisanship Bring Change to the Senate
The bitter struggle in the Senate over restricting filibusters is the
culmination of years of growing partisanship and ideological warfare that have
transformed this 18th-century institution. Many senators entered the battle with
a grim sense of inevitability, saddened but not surprised that it had come to
Older senators talk wistfully of a more civil era that they say has now
largely vanished. The few remaining centrists say the fierce partisan currents
make it very hard to build the bipartisan coalitions necessary to do something
big -- like changing Social Security -- or to defuse internal disputes like the
present one over judges.
Senators in both parties complain about the increasingly aggressive demands
of outside advocacy groups on issues like judicial nominations, and their
unwillingness to settle for anything less than victory.
''They almost all succumb to the notion that the ends justify the means,''
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, reflected this week.
Scholars and historians caution against romanticizing the past; the older
senator bemoaning the passing of a more courtly and civilized era is something
of a tradition on Capitol Hill. Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at George
Washington University, said that the conflict between protecting the rights of
the minority and accomplishing the agenda of the majority, now front and center
in the Senate, was a very old one.
Still, the Senate is different. More and more lawmakers have gone to the
Senate from the House, and taken with them the House's more partisan mind-set.
More and more of the techniques of the modern campaign have been brought to bear
in the Senate -- war rooms, rapid response, daily attacks and counterattacks --
continuing the partisan battles of the last election in another setting.
In short, an institution envisioned in The Federalist Papers as a ''salutary
check on the government,'' unswayed by the passions of the day, is instead at
the eye of the ideological storm. And it is showing the strains.
Some ''institutionalists'' -- those who think about the Senate they will
leave behind -- say that many senators are now putting short-term political
interests above the constitutional prerogatives of the Senate. ''There are fewer
people in the Senate who think of it as an institution,'' said Senator Paul S.
Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, who is retiring next year after 30 years in the
Senate. ''They put first and foremost their party allegiance, particularly when
they have a president of their own party.''
Mr. Sarbanes and other Democrats said they were disappointed that more of
the senior Republicans had not stepped forward to avert this attempt to limit
judicial filibusters. After all, Democrats assert, the rules change would shift
power from the Senate to the executive branch, giving the White House much more
unfettered power over nominations, and setting a dangerous precedent for
restricting minority rights.
Some of those senior Republicans are, in fact, at the center of the effort
to find a compromise.
But many Republicans -- including five of the most senior and powerful
lawmakers who made their case at a news conference on Thursday -- argue that
Democrats have already damaged Senate tradition by denying the president's
judicial nominees an up-or-down vote.
And Senator George Allen, Republican of Virginia and one of the newer
generation of senators, said he hoped he never got accustomed to the mind-set of
colleagues who ''worship process.'' He said he was far more concerned about
delivering on the promise he made last year as chairman of the National
Republican Senatorial Committee -- to get the president's nominees into the
In fact, activists on both sides say it is not surprising that political
passions are so intense -- what could be more fundamental than the shape of the
courts, and eventually the shape of the Supreme Court? And why should the Senate
be immune to the same sharp divisions that dominate the rest of American
politics and have turned liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats into
endangered species?
''It really does start with a polarized electorate,'' said Richard Fenno, an
expert on Congress and a political scientist at the University of Rochester. '
'People go there girded to do battle.''
Warren B. Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, said his
fellow Republicans had a right to be angry about Democratic tactics. Still, Mr.
Rudman said he thought the attempt to prohibit judicial filibusters was
dangerous. ''It hurts the minority, and the Republicans will someday be in a
minority again,'' he said.
Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, argued that there was,
in part, a generational issue in play, pointing out that many of the newer
Republican senators had spent very little time, if any, as a minority. ''If you
haven't been here under those circumstances, you don't appreciate how important
these rights are,'' said Mr. Dodd, a senator for 25 years, who noted that he had
served under nearly every possible configuration of power.
Increasingly, Democrats complain (and some Republicans privately agree) that
their chamber is taking on the characteristics of the House -- where the
majority has substantially more power, and where redistricting has driven both
parties to their ideological bases.
That should not be surprising; more than half of the current Senate has come
from the House. Twenty years ago, fewer than a third did. These transplants from
the House now account for some of the most powerful, and most partisan, members
of the Senate, like Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican
in the chamber.
But partisanship is hardly confined to Republicans. The Democrats have
maintained solid opposition to the president on Social Security.
In fact, partisan voting in 2003 was at a 50-year high in Congress as a
whole, and 2004 was nearly as high, according to a Congressional Quarterly
analysis of roll-call votes. Senate Republicans voted with their party 90
percent of the time in 2004; Senate Democrats 83 percent of the time, according
to an analysis of important votes in which party leaders staked out clear
positions. Some scholars say voting has not been this polarized for a century.
Some senators sought to be reassuring in this week's debate, arguing that
very little was unprecedented in the Senate. Senator Trent Lott, Republican of
Mississippi, told his colleagues Thursday that this struggle was just the way
the Senate worked -- great clashes, thundering roars, and then the issue fades
away. But scholars and senators agree the clashes are particularly sharp these
days, and they come very quickly, and they do not fade away.
GRAPHIC: Chart: ''From House to Senate''An increasing number of senators have
come from the House, sometimes bringing a more partisan mind-set with
them.Numbers of senators who are former House membersGraph tracks number of
senators who are former House members since 1977.(Source by Senate Historical
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