- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Last week, Senate DemocraticLeader HarryReidof Nevada pulled out a metaphorical cane and tried to kneecap the president’s Social Security reform legislation before it could hit full stride. While Mr. Reid whacked the White House with well-worn political tactics — the “letter lock-in” and the “announcement ambush” — he had some other victims in mind: namely, congressional Republicans, whom he hoped to spook by proclaiming premature defeat for the president’s plan.

But Mr. Reid’s comments require a dose of perspective. And in fairness to the Senate Democratic leader, a close examination of what he said was less ominous than the media reported. Social Security reform is in the very early stages of a long legislative process. Announcements about its early retirement are politically — and factually — premature.

Mr. Reid said in The Washington Post last week that he had “more than enough votes to block President Bush’s bid to allow private accounts in Social Security.” “President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security. It will not happen,” Mr. Reid vowed, according to the story. He also sent a letter to the White House, signed by 43 Democratic senators, outlining reservations about the president’s reform ideas. Both tactics, however, were political ploys intended to deflate Republican lawmakers. Announcing that Social Security reform lacked Democratic support, along with a letter “locking in” lawmakers to oppose the president, are popular political tactics used increasingly in the Senate, an institution adopting hardball tactics previously reserved for the House.

Yet reading between the lines of the Democrats’ letter, it looks more like opening-round posturing and the exercise of House-like political techniques than the end of a Social Security-reform bout.

Mr. Reid’s tactics are part of a broader trend. The Senate is rapidly morphing from the world’s greatest deliberative body to a political consultant’s nirvana — the epicenter of the permanent campaign. A Republican senator summed it up well last week: “The Democrats are behaving in February 2005 just like they did in October 2004. It’s as if the election never happened.”

Congress has undergone a subtle change in the last several years; the recent activities on Social Security underscore the trend. Previously, the House was the center of partisan warfare, a raucous institution reflecting the passions of the people. The Senate was the “saucer to cool the legislative coffee” — a more collegial institution driven by a desire for consensus. “I’ve never seen this level of partisanship in the Senate,” a veteran lobbyist told me. “The kind of behavior you see today used to only happen in the House.”

The migration of House members to the Senate is part of the reason. Twenty years ago, in the 100th Congress, 39 Senators were former House members. Some 30 percent to 40 percent is about the historical norm in the Senate. Yet in the 109th Congress, the number ballooned to 52 — an all-time high. So it should come as no surprise that the new personalities in the upper body are importing the tactics and techniques they learned in the House.

Democratic senators also showed off their full-metal campaign jackets last week by opening a “war room” in the Capitol, a rapid-response, political-communications apparatus that will no doubt accelerate the transformation of the Senate into the legislative equivalent of a battleground state.

But looking beneath the House-like hype and tactics there are signs of optimism on Social Security. A bipartisan group of senators, led by Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is continuing constructive talks. The letter, signed by all the Democratic senators, expresses concerns about the impact of the Social Security plan on the deficit, while committing no one to voting against the reform proposal or personal accounts. And for all the attention in the press to Mr. Mr. Reid’s statements all he said was “I don’t know of a single Democratic senator” who will back the plan. Mr. Reid knows a lot of things, but not everything.

Partisan rhetoric and tactics have multiplied in the Senate like mushrooms after months of rain. From filibustering judges to creating “war rooms,” the Senate is now as partisan as the House. Supporters of Social Security reform need to recognize this transformation, separating these new tactics from the institution’s enduring potential for compromise. Gingerly avoiding these short-term traps and not getting discouraged by the inevitable political attacks will prevent the occasional rap on the knees from becoming a permanent legislative disability.

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