- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

George Wallace used to brag that if he were elected president the first thing he would do is go to the capital and throw the bicycles and briefcases of all the pointy-headed intellectuals into the Potomac.
The Alabama governor never made it to Washington in an official capacity, despite conducting a viable nationwide campaign that helped propel Richard Nixon to the White House in 1968. But he did garner some 12 percent of the popular vote, not bad for a third-party candidate and a clear indication that his promise to bring some "common" sense to the government struck a chord with a great number of people, even if they didn't believe he could accomplish it.
If there ever was a time when Wallace's pledge might need renewing, it is now, when the Senate, that august body of presidential aspirants, seems to have taken leave of its senses, common or otherwise. The Democrats, obviously refusing to go gently into the good night of a minority without near-majority perks, and the newly majority Republicans, who see no reason to give them anything except minor consideration, are at a debilitating impasse that has pretty much destroyed any hope of bipartisanship in the next two years.
Republicans screamed that Democrats were trying to undo the election that gave the GOP a 51-49 majority, and that this coup was designed to thwart President Bush's agenda, including his judicial nominees. Democrats argued they were being shortchanged in the amount of money and space given them. Meanwhile, Democrats held on to chairmanships they didn't deserve and newly elected members failed to receive committee assignments. Even with the prospect that this too will soon pass in the chamber often referred to as the "deliberative" body of Congress, those among the country's citizens who actually have faith in their legislature are left to ponder just who in the world is in charge of the asylum. The answer seems obvious: It is the inmates.
Thus, within the first few days of the 108th Congress, the Senate has set a tone of rancor and divisiveness that holds very little prospect for achievement. Economic policy and tax changes and judgeships and a slew of vital business will have a tough time making it past the daily maneuvering for advantage in the 2004 presidential sweepstakes and that, after all, is what this really is about. With at least four members of the Senate and one member of the House seeking the Democratic nomination, one can expect nothing less than all-out political partisanship.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was willing to give up his chairmanship without a hassle because the panel would conduct the hearings on Tom Ridge's nomination to be the first secretary of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The only problem was that the hearings got postponed because of the disagreements. The others whose Senate tenure has produced aspirations for higher elected office include John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida. Former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri is also in the hunt for the nomination, but so far the House has been much more civilized in these earliest days. That probably will change.
No one expects a pervasive atmosphere of equanimity in the national legislature. Some of the president's ideas are good and some aren't, and both parties have those same limitations on the sagacity of their efforts. The deliberative body is expected to do just that and, whenever possible, put aside the bickering to produce what's best for the land. Is that too much to ask? Well, probably, given the nature of the beast. But there are some huge domestic questions to be answered, not to mention increasingly thorny foreign policy issues. What about Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and prescription drugs for the elderly and a lagging economy and the domestic war on terrorism?
The presidential candidates also can be expected to take positions that are diametrically opposed to Mr. Bush's, at least domestically, and the Democratic Party will reflect their stances as it tries to rebuild its fortunes and re-establish itself both in terms of the White House and Congress. In the meantime, leaders of both parties should be careful about the way they appear to the public.
Someone actually might come to Washington and throw their bicycles into the river.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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