- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2003

Actions have consequences and political conduct is no exception. When one political party acts, the other one responds with varying degrees of coordination and ferocity. This ying and yang is as predictable as stale fortune cookies. Yet sometimes tactics have unintended effects, reshaping the political landscape and policy outcomes in profound ways.
Political observers recently highlighted the aggressive and partisan approach Senate Democrats took during the first few weeks of the 108th Congress. Overlooked in these commentaries was the galvanizing effect the Democrats' behavior had on Republican unity in the U.S. Senate. This surprise byproduct of the minority party's antagonistic strategy could have long-term implications for the operation of the Senate, an institution historically associated more with lone rangers than team players.
Democratic partisanship partially explains Republican unity. Yet, another congealing force is the deliberate emphasis on "teamwork" borrowed from the House Republicans, who managed narrow majorities over the last several years. Members of the Senate Republican leadership, including Rick Santorum, from Pennsylvania; Jon Kyl, from Arizona; and George Allen, from Virginia; as well as Majority Leader Bill Frist's chief of staff, Mitch Bainwol, are all battle-tested House veterans. The Democrats' behavior creates a fertile environment to plant new seeds in an old institution and so far, its working well.
The ink was barely dry on the parchment of the new senators' election certificates when Democrats dispensed with the niceties normally accompanying a new session. For example, while the Senate recognized Mr. Frist as the new majority leader, Democrats still chaired committees because of lack of agreement on the rules organizing the Senate. This unusual state of affairs led to near-paralysis for the first two weeks of the new Congress.
Next came the unfinished fiscal year 2003 omnibus appropriations bills. Republicans sought to complete last year's business, clearing the decks for the new Congress. Again, the Democrats adopted obstructionist tactics, offering politically charged amendments that not only slowed the process, but jeopardized the fragile agreement between the White House and Congress concerning overall spending.
On a series of politically sensitive Democrat amendments concerning education, the environment and drought assistance, all 51 Republican Senators held together in a bloc, displaying remarkable unanimity. "The Democrats laid down the gauntlet and thought they could divide us," one Republican leadership aide said. "They 'dared' us to stick together and we did."
The obstruction du jour is the nomination of Miguel Estrada as U.S. Circuit Court judge, currently tying up Senate deliberations. Again, the Democrats' response to this well qualified, Hispanic judicial nominee was hardball. Instead of allowing a vote by the full Senate, Democrats mounted an informal filibuster a tactic only used rarely in the judicial confirmation process and unprecedented with respect to Circuit Court nominees.
Republicans are livid. "The Conference came out of its lunch Tuesday resolved to get a vote on Estrada whatever it takes late nights, weekends, even next week" said Mr. Santorum. "I don't understand the Democrats' upside on their filibuster."
Teamwork is taking root because there is a palpable sense among Senate Republicans that they have to produce. Past excuses blaming President Clinton during the 1990s or the Democrat majority last year no longer work.
It's natural to look across the Capitol for answers. The number of Republican Senators with experience in the House continues to grow. Well over half of the current Senate majority served in the House in the last several years. They know the rewards of party discipline and survival tactics in narrow majorities, and want to avoid serving in the minority.
Facing huge expectations, rules tipped in favor of the minority and aggressive opposition from the Democrats, the 51 Republican senators have their work cut out for them. Yet, their initial responses to these challenges seem promising. House Republicans consistently beat the odds over the last several years, pulling together and winning one tough vote after another despite consistently smaller majorities between 1996-2001. So far, the Senate is doing the same.
Political scientists William Connelly and John Pitney note that this cohesion is understandable: "Members really want their party to have the majority, and under the right conditions, this desire shapes behavior."
Yet, even 51 unified votes will hit some rough sledding in the face of a determined minority in the Senate. However, all-obstruction-all-the-time is probably not an option for the Democrats either. As scholar Barbara Sinclair observes, hyper-partisanship has its limits if Republicans wisely navigate the public relations game, because it makes the "perceived electoral costs of continued obstruction too high for minority party members."
Smart planning by the Republicans and unduly belligerent partisanship by the Democrats are the glue binding the Republican party together this year. Republican leaders should continue to spread the sticky stuff around. They will need this adhesive often in the months ahead.

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