- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, at 12:50 a.m., a weary Majority Leader Bill Frist strode on to the Senate floor like he had so many times in the past two years to engage in what Hill veterans call “wrap up” — a time at the end of the legislative day when lawmakers consider noncontroversial legislation and nominations.

And while hyper-partisanship has made the customary and routine complex and rigorous, this particular morning the Senate made a little modern history, confirming 172 nominees with one motion and a voice vote — the largest number in a single day since George W. Bush became president (The previous record set a couple years ago was about 70). Included were several nominees stuck in advise and consent limbo for over a year, each experiencing the confirmation equivalent of Dante’s Inferno.

The megadeal included most of the same players negotiating for the administration and Senate Republicans. The new entrant was Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, elected by his colleagues to take over for Sen. Tom Daschle just days before. “He was the new variable in the equation and he wanted to get something done,” a source close to the negotiations told me. “That was the difference between success now and failure in the past.” It’s clear the battle lines had become so entrenched; a new personality in the mix was the key to progress.

Those familiar with the transition from Mr. Daschle to Mr. Reid saw Saturday morning’s events as a significant tactical shift as well. “I can see Senator Reid taking a more calibrated approach to picking his fights,” someone with a long history watching the Senate told me. It’s as if he concluded the up sides to an “all obstruction all the time” are questionable. A Republican senator I spoke to agreed. “With Senator Daschle, everything was difficult — the big things, the small things, the medium things. We never got a break.” This was Mr. Reid’s maiden voyage in the three-dimensional chess game every leader faces balancing his own colleagues’ interests while negotiating with the White House and Republicans. Many familiar with intra-Senate politics believe Mr. Reid’s style and behavior could signal a major breakthrough — an outcome leaving the White House and the Senate viewing his new tenure of leadership as a “Reid of hope,” for bipartisan cooperation on other matters.

The confirmation gridlock over the past year affected both sides of the aisle, so it’s not as if Mr. Reid and his colleagues unilaterally disarmed. Democrats got something in return. Most important to Mr. Reid was the recess appointment of one of his staff to become a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The deal also provided for Senate confirmation of other Democrats like Jonathan Adelstein (a former Daschle staffer) as a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

In terms of sheer numbers, however, the confirmation deal was extremely beneficial to the White House because it filled many positions in key agencies like the Departments of Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Commerce and Justice, as well as some ambassadorial appointments.

Clearing the backlog and unlocking the partisan puzzle that held up so many nominees also sends a positive signal to those who consider joining the second Bush term. “We hope this is a positive sign to those who might have to get confirmed by the Senate in the future,” an administration official told me.

Will the nomination breakthrough signal clearer sailing between the White House and Senate Republicans and the Democrats? It depends. It’s an overreach to assume Democrats will capitulate on a host of major issues. Yet it does begin to rebuild an environment of trust and respect between the parties. Vigorous debate on major issues is the true mother’s milk of politics. That will continue. Yet mindless obstruction sours cooperation on items big and small, spoiling trust and curdling any appetite for bipartisan give and take.

At a minimum, the recent end-of-session nomination deal restores a modicum of trust and a taste of what cooperation looks like. No doubt legislative collaboration will break down often next year. Mr. Reid’s recent ill-mannered comments about Justice Clarence Thomas could contribute to such a collapse. Yet the new Democratic leader also provided the Republicans and the White House with fresh hope that the opposition will sing in more than one key from time to time, and that occasionally harmony sounds pretty sweet.

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