Senate gets reacquainted with itself

Call it the week the war rooms fell silent, if only for a few hours.

The Democratic war room is tucked away on the Capital's third floor, near the Senate press galleries. The Republican war room, dubbed "peace room," is just off the Old Senate Chamber.

Ground zero for the battle over judicial nominees, these partisan hothouses churned out talking points to feed a 24/7 news maw, where any charge unanswered counts as a concession. Top staff were reassigned to firm up the party lines. By Monday, the clock was already counting down to a next-day vote both sides saw as inevitable.

Instead, the unexpected happened: Senators talked to each other - at length, across party lines, and privately - and cut a deal. What electrified other members wasn't so much the terms of the compromise, which could splinter over the next controversial nominee, but the way it came about: senator to senator.

When the Senate faced its last institutional crisis, the impeachment trial of President Clinton, senators retired to the Old Senate Chamber, without staff, and worked out a compromise. Last week, Democratic leader Harry Reid proposed another senators-only retreat to resolve Republican threats of a "nuclear option" - a rule change to keep filibuster from stalling judicial nominees.

But the deal that emerged from the shuttle diplomacy was something more: A return to the way senators used to get things done, face to face. After private talks, seven Republicans and seven Democrats agreed to allow votes on several blocked Bush judicial nominees, while taking the bitterly contested rule change off the table. "I find great encouragement in the work of the 14. It's one of my happiest days in the Senate," said Sen. Thomas Carper (D) of Delaware. "The pathway has been cleared for working across the aisle on asbestos, transportation, clean air, postal reform in ways that would not have been possible."

That sort of engagement used to be the essence of life in a clubby US Senate. But the Capitol's compressed, three-day workweek leaves little time for the private conversations that oil friendship and collaboration in what members still like to call "the world's greatest deliberative body."

"Compared to the previous eras, the members literally have no time but to come to town, attend committee meetings, cast a whole lot of votes, go to triple-booked fundraisers, then get out of town," says Mike Franc, a former congressional staffer now at the Heritage Foundation.

Congressional historian Julian Zelizer traces the decline in what he calls "socialization" in Congress to the arrival of television and "sunshine" reforms in the 1970s. These broke down the doors of backroom politics and opened Senate business to more public scrutiny and accountability. But they had an unintended consequence: "Both representatives and senators talk to each other less - a huge change in the last three decades," he says.

Washington lawyer and lobbyist Bert Carp, a Senate staffer from 1970 to 1977, says "sunshine laws" drove key negotiations down to staff levels. "Senators lost the private part of their time together, where you could speak freely and build a lot of trust. We now have nearly a whole generation in the Senate who have only worked under the current regime."

Reducing the influence of staff has long been a rallying cry for reformers in both houses of Congress. The big staff buildups on Capitol Hill occurred after World War II and the Vietnam war, when Congress tried to reassert its influence vis-à-vis a powerful presidency.

When Republicans took back the House in 1995, one of the directives from leadership to freshmen was not to move their families to town, to avoid becoming creatures of Washington.

"I'm a big believer that we always benefit from building relationships," says Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois. And "the formal structures that leadership sets up sometimes preclude compromise." One of the unexpected outcomes of this week's truce on judges, he says, is that "more informal structures may come to be set up."

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