- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

Politics, like a nation at war with terrorists, got deadly serious Tuesday. The American people sent a clear message checks and balances are desirable, but obstructionism and pettiness are not.
The political landscape shifted over the last year; only the most nimble among us noticed the change. On many issues where American interests were at stake, split control of Congress went well beyond voters' desire for balance. The Senate was bogged down in a big way over issues large and small. Voters wanted a mid-course, midterm correction and thanks to a brilliant strategy orchestrated by the White House and Republican congressional leaders they got one.
House Democrats were in a little different situation than their Senate colleagues. On a variety of issues, including Medicare prescription-drug benefits, the budget, Homeland Security and welfare reform, House members put forward alternatives to the Republican legislation and actually cast votes on these proposals. Many opposed the president's agenda, but they offered concrete alternatives not so in the Senate.
The Senate's failure to act on the federal budget this year is an instructive example. There was a lot of finger-pointing about why the Senate did not complete action on the budget blueprint. In the end, however, President Bush successfully argued that the Senate Democratic leadership's refusal to even allow a vote on an overall budget along with all the recriminations about who was to blame were petty and examples of a dysfunctional system that needed change. Many concluded that for Senate Democrats, "winning" was more important than governing.
While few grasped the full political implications, lack of action by the Senate took on a whole new significance in the wake of September 11. Tactical decisions and rationales for legislative inaction that worked in the past became formulas for failure. In many ways, in a post-September 11 environment, infecting issues with political rhetoric and blame and not casting votes win or lose wore thin with voters.
In states like Georgia, there was a growing sense that Sen. Max Cleland was against the president's energy bill because of concerns raised by environmental interest groups. He was against Homeland Security because of opposition by public employee unions. And his party was blocking completion of terrorism insurance because of objections from trial lawyers. As one White House aide said, "it may have been OK for special interests to trump national security in the past, but not in today's environment." Democrats paid a heavy price wherever the president charged they were putting politics ahead of national security and the economy. Not because they voted against the president, but in many cases because they never voted at all.
In addition to not voting or completing action on legislation, Democrats in the Senate were also harmed by a perceived pettiness in other areas.
Confirming presidential appointments, particularly judges, is another example. The Senate plays an important role in advice and consent on presidential appointments. It's not just a rubber stamp. Yet, over the past year, the pendulum seemed to swing too far in the direction of the legislative branch. The process bogged down and appeared wrapped around the axle of special-interest politics.
Well-qualified men and women were put through an unconscionable process of delay and investigation in a game that seemed to have no rules, timeline or end. The Senate should vote on nominees, and provide careful scrutiny to people appointed to these positions. But too often, individual senators rigged the rules to deny nominees hearings or other maneuvers that blocked consideration by the full Senate.
Agenda control is the most significant tool the new Republican majority will have in the 108th Congress. The GOP will determine which issues Senate committees consider, the subjects and tone of hearings, and what legislation and nominations will be considered on the floor.
But the new Senate majority has another, more subtle role ending a lot of the procedural pettiness. They face a unique opportunity to work with the president to change the tone in Washington.
Of course, the new Senate majority is not a rubber stamp for Mr. Bush's agenda. And in many cases, Majority Leader Trent Lott will still have to muster 60 votes to get things through. Yet, by putting measures up for votes, instead of blocking them with procedural tools, voters will feel the process is fair, even if some of their favorite measures lose.
Scheduling votes on issues and nominations stalled over the past year gives the new Senate majority a chance to set a different tone sending a message that they want to work with the president in making America more secure, promoting economic security as well as national security. It appears they are moving in that direction. Democrats also have an opportunity to develop concrete alternatives and offer them as a loyal opposition. Both sides putting their best proposals forward and voting on them, win or lose, will help avoid the pettiness and procedural gimmicks that came back to haunt the Democrats on Tuesday.

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