- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

The comity once characterizing the U.S. Senate — the so-called Senate Club that helped the chamber run regardless of which party was in control — is dead, some senators say, and that has led to the need for change in underlying Senate rules.

Sen. Trent Lott, who as chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee will hold the first hearing on changing filibuster rules this week, put it bluntly.

“The club is dead. I’m not sure when it died, but the club is dead,” said Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican. “When I see what the club does to its own members, and to its former members now, the club is no longer here.”

Those who say the Senate Club is dead point to several recent events: concurrent filibusters of judicial nominees, the use of anonymous “holds” from both parties to prevent legislation from reaching the floor and the inability to receive consent to make minor changes to speed the legislative process.

Senators and observers said the breakdown matters because some of the rules of the Senate are based on the old Senate atmosphere.

“When the underlying basis doesn’t exist anymore, then the form and the ritual that express that understanding, that respect, are destined to change,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican political strategist in Washington. “You can’t possibly have a culture that supports a tradition like the hold or filibuster unless the culture is based on restraint — and restraint born out of respect to your colleagues and the institution as a whole.”

That’s why Mr. Lott, former majority leader, said he and other Republican leaders are considering pushing several rules changes.

“We’ve got a problem here. Like the holds. [Democratic leader Tom] Daschle and I tried to tighten up on the holds, but the holds are still being abused,” he said. “They’re done in secrecy, they’re done in — what do they call it, rolling holds. It drives majority leaders nuts. In the past, a member wouldn’t dare to do that to a majority leader. He would have had his chest poked by Lyndon Johnson until he couldn’t walk.

“This thing has gotten to where it’s all geared to stop things from happening,” Mr. Lott said.

Several rules changes have been proposed — including reducing the minority’s ability to indefinitely filibuster nominations and tightening up on holds.

Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the rules and the decline of the club are unrelated.

“The club idea came way after the rules. And, frankly, the club has been gone for decades. It’s a sort of quaint concept that has given way to permanent campaigning by members of the Senate — to intensified partisanship by the willingness of individual senators to make extensive use of holds in a way that frustrates their colleagues,” he said.

He said the major change in the club has been the decline of overlap between the parties, exemplified best by Southern conservative Democrats in the middle part of the 20th century.

But some senators, including Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, and Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the comity still exists.

“I think it’s still around,” Mr. McConnell said. “It could arguably be on life support from time to time, but I don’t think it’s completely gone.”

Several senators said the club still exists as far as personal relationships go, and they fondly recalled the notes from fellow senators on the birth of a grandchild or condolences for an ailing spouse.

“It’s the bifurcation of members’ relationships when it comes to policy,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat.

He traced the change of policy to the influence of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who led the charge to a Republican majority in the 1990s.

Eric M. Uslaner, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, said things have changed since the 1940s and 1950s, when Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas and Republican Joe Martin of Massachusetts traded the speakership back and forth and used to dine with each other a couple of times a week.

He also pointed to Mr. Gingrich as a big part of the change, arguing that Mr. Gingrich and fellow Republicans decided “there were too many Joe Martins having dinner with Sam Rayburn,” and that the way to earn a majority was to be more oppositional.

He also said the rules changes in the Senate are similar to what Democrats did in the House two decades ago.

“Republicans now are beginning to do in the Senate what the Democrats did in the House in the 1980s — fighting fire with fire,” Mr. Uslaner said. “In the 1980s, the Democrats changed the rules to become far more majoritarian — give the majority far more power. Republicans are trying to do that in the Senate now.”

Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, said he hasn’t noticed additional decline in collegiality in recent years, but agreed that the club atmosphere died long ago.

“I attribute all of the decline to the jet airplane,” Mr. Graham said. “Before the jet airplane, senators and congressmen came to Washington and stayed. There was no expectation that they would go home every weekend.”

Several senior senators also said part of the change is the democratization of the Senate — particularly because freshmen lawmakers play a much bigger role now, so the deal-making isn’t just done by a couple of Senate leaders.

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