Deals that changed history

A look back at three major pieces of historical federal legislation, started and finished by small groups of men intent on statesmanship.

By , Staff writer

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    President Eisenhower (r.) receives ideas for a massive highway program in 1955.
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The storied congressional dealmakers are the ones who see opportunities for a breakthrough on tough issues that others may miss – and find ways to change minds.

No golden age of Congress exists when bills breezed through the House and Senate with little debate, harsh words, or procedural "obstruction." Big bills often take years, even decades, to be enacted, not because the process is deeply flawed, but because of the divides that exist among voters, regions, and interests.

That's where the dealmakers can make a difference. Some, like Henry Clay, were eloquent; others less so. Their strategies varied, but all had a sense of what was politically possible and found ways to seize the moment, for good or ill. Three examples epitomize different dimensions of dealmaking on Capitol Hill over the decades:

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The Compromise of 1850

The package of five bills, which delayed the onset of the Civil War by a decade, began as the masterwork of Whig Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, then in the twilight of a brilliant political career. But it could not have passed without the raw political energy of Sen. Stephen Douglas (D) of Illinois, part of a new generation of leaders.

The end of the Mexican War in 1848 set off a firestorm over whether the new territories would be slave or free. These and a host of other issues widened the rifts between the North and South.

To save the Union from dissolution, Clay proposed a "great national scheme of compromise and harmony," a grand bargain to resolve disputes over slavery. In the Senate, Clay set up back channels to Democrats and caucused daily with both Democrats and Whigs committed to saving the Union. "Meet earlier, sit longer, meet every working day of the week," he urged colleagues.

But what Clay counted on most was his own powers of persuasion. When he spoke on the Senate floor, spectators jammed the galleries. Some of them wept. In the end, it wasn't enough. After seven months of debate, the omnibus bill was defeated, and Clay, battling illness, left town.

Douglas, effectively, took over. Known as the "Little Giant" or the "steam engine in britches," he had spoken very little during the debate. But after studying the votes on the legislation, Douglas concluded that by pushing each measure separately, the whole package could pass.

Instead of counting on public speeches, Douglas and his allies focused on backroom meetings to decide what winning coalitions were possible.

"Through a combination of personal magnetism, locomotive energy, an amazingly acute reading of the minds of his fellow senators North and South – and, yes, towering hubris – Douglas had wrought a miracle," writes Fergus M. Bordewich in "America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union."

The Interstate Highway program of 1956

Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to F.D.R. had proposed upgrading the nation's road system, but none managed it as effectively as President Eisenhower and a Democratic-controlled Congress, which launched the Interstate Highway System in 1956. It was, at the time, the largest public works program in American history.

The key was a new triumvirate – Eisenhower, House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D) of Texas, and the fledgling Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson (D) of Texas – that met, weekly, in the evening at the White House to drink and talk. It was at one of these sessions that Eisenhower first raised the notion of a massive infrastructure project. Eisenhower had seen, close up, the German autobahn as supreme Allied commander in Europe. In 1919, he had assessed the US road system for the Army on a cross-country tour. He called it "appalling."

But Eisenhower's convincing 1952 presidential victory alarmed many Democrats on Capitol Hill, who were reluctant to openly support a Republican president. So Johnson had another idea, according to biographer Robert Caro. Rather than opposing Eisenhower, which would be suicide, Democrats would offer more support for his agenda than even the GOP, whose isolationist wing was already feuding with the president. It could be the key to the Democrats' resurgence.

A highway bill passed in the Senate in 1955 but died in the House in a dispute over funding. Eisenhower made another push in 1956, a presidential election year. This time, it passed.

He viewed the program as his signature domestic achievement. "More than any single action by government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America," he wrote in his memoir, "Mandate for Change."

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The landmark measure, posing one of the biggest political challenges of the 20th century, could not have passed without a strong working relationship among President Johnson, Democratic whip Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, and Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen (R) of Illinois.

Democrats had a 67-seat majority in the Senate, but at least 23 Democrats strongly opposed civil rights legislation, and a filibuster on civil rights had never been broken. Johnson called on Humphrey, the bill's floor manager, to reach out to Dirksen. "Now you know that this bill can't pass unless you get Ev Dirksen," Johnson told Humphrey, according to biographer Caro. "You've got to let him have a piece of the action. He's got to look good all the time."

That was a reach. Dirksen had voted against all previous civil rights bills. He had already publicly opposed features in the 1964 bill. Moreover, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, was campaigning on states' rights. While he had backed previous civil rights legislation, he opposed the 1964 bill.

Still, Humphrey, the "happy warrior," never broke with the narrative that Dirksen was a "statesman above partisanship," who would, in the end, deliver the GOP votes.

He did. On June 10, the Senate voted, 71 to 29, to end a filibuster that had lasted a record 57 days. Dirksen garnered 27 Republican votes. The bill passed the Senate 10 days later. "Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come," Dirksen said, quoting Victor Hugo.

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