- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Every Tuesday from 12:30 to 2:15 p.m., all floor activity in the Senate halts, and lawmakers privately reconvene in two smaller rooms on the second floor of the Capitol for their weekly policy/caucus lunches. Victorian formality dominates the two rooms named after former majority leaders (Mike Mansfield of Montana and Lyndon Johnson of Texas). Republicans gather in S.207, the Mansfield Room. Democratsdine around the corner in S.211, in the LBJ Room, the space the formermajority leader commandeered in 1958 from the District ofColumbia Committee so he could be only steps from the Senate chamber. LBJ decorated it so lavishly some used to call it the Taj Mahal.

Both parties plot strategy and tactics for the week ahead at these meetings. Sometimes the mood in the room is desultory and calm, but often it’s incendiary, igniting partisan flames as senators reinforce each other’s caustic observations and trade barbs about the shortcomings of the other party.

Lawmakers often get so riled up that comity deteriorates quickly when the two sides reconvene at 2:30 p.m. on the Senate floor. Several observers told me the partisan rancor in the Democratic Caucus has escalated since they lost control of the Senate in 2002 and because of their posturing due to the approaching presidential election. “You never want to schedule a vote immediately following the Democratic Caucus lunch on Tuesday,” a Republican aide told me. “Sometimes it’s better to let things calm down.”

Despite the contemporary inferno in the LBJ Room, one senator regularly tries to douse the bonfires of partisanship — Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who is retiring at the end of this Congress. In an institution where reaching across party lines is becoming more foreign, his departure creates an even wider chasm between the parties and accelerates the trajectory of partisanship in Congress toward greater polarization.

Mr. Breaux occupies a key niche in a closely divided Senate, where a “majority” often means getting 60 percent of the votes and any individual can block progress by just saying “no.” Not surprisingly, he was integral to passing many of President Bush’s top priorities — tax cuts, Medicare/prescription drugs and trade legislation, to name a few.

I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Breaux last week, and it’s clear he plays at least three distinct roles as the Senate’s consummate bridge builder — moderator, molder and messenger.

He is a moderator, imploring his colleagues to come together and not view lawmaking as a sporting event. “Both sides treat the legislative process like the Super Bowl and think it’s all about winning for the political parties,” he told me. He doesn’t think politics is a winner-take-all proposition. Many times, when the self-reinforcing rhetoric in the LBJ boils over and his colleagues put on the war paint, Mr. Breaux has been known to stand up and say, “Wait a minute folks, there is another side to the story.”

He is a molder, intimately involved in most of the key battles that require building bipartisan coalitions, including taxes, health care and welfare reform. If politics is the art of the possible, Mr. Breaux is the Rembrandt of the Senate. His staff says he always reminds them that getting “40 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.”

He is a messenger, sometimes traversing deep behind enemy lines in pitched partisan battles. It’s clear from discussions with staff on both sides of the aisle, including the White House, that Mr. Breaux often is tasked to send messages back and forth between warring factions — a role he relishes. He is asked often by Republicans to play an honest broker in approaching Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. Conversely, many Democrats believe he is the most effective ambassador for their party in reaching out to the White House or the Republican leadership in the Senate.

Mr. Breaux believes bipartisanship is more popular with voters than politicians. “We need to catch up to our constituents,” he told me. And while some Republicans might disagree with his calls for greater bipartisan cooperation, they also may find it more difficult to pass tax cuts, market-oriented health care changes, free-trade policies and other entitlement reforms without him in the Senate next year. And the next time the Democrats sit down in the Taj Mahal, instead of putting on partisan war paint, they should think about who among them will serve as Mr. Breaux’s successor and become another Rembrandt in the Senate.

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