A Glimpse Back at the Old Senate

I’m kind of waiting around to see what emerges out of the chaos in Congress at the moment, so I’m going to give you two stories I found last night while researching my Murkowski-Collins defection piece. They both come from the Senate floor on January 5th, 2001 as the agreement on how to organize the 50-50 Senate was being announced and debated. The first story comes from Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico and talks about his experiences dealing with the legendary Democratic senator, Russell Long of Louisiana.

Did I have any real friends in the Democratic Party who went to exceptional ends to be helpful to me?

Let me tell you a brief story.

I was a pipsqueak in the Senate, and Senator Long was a very big Senator. I was just starting my first term. I passed only one bill. It was a big bill. It imposed a 10-cent gasoline tax–Senator Byrd, you remember that–on the users of the inland waterways. Do you remember that fight?

It went on forever, but I won fair and square, and I went home to campaign. And, believe it or not, a Senator from that side of the aisle, in my absence–I was in New Mexico–was going to undo my victory because they had the votes and he had the floor. A staffer called me and said: You better come back, get off the campaign trail and come over here and defend the only legislative victory you have, of any significance, in the first 6 years. I was prepared to do it.

Guess what the next call was, in about a half hour–Russell Long. I had defeated him on the floor in that debate.

And he said: Pete, they won’t do that.

I said: What? They will not upset your victory. You won. You stay home and campaign.

Think of that, telling a Republican to stay home.

You stay home and campaign and I will take the floor in your place and object to what is contemplated. And the victory that you got will not be undone here on the floor by a Democrat.

That is friendship, right? But, listen, I didn’t agree with Russell Long on a lot of things–and he knew that–here on the floor of the Senate.

I say to my Democrat friends on the other side of the aisle, all kinds of expressions have been used talking about what is going on: “We extend a hand to you,” and all those other wonderful words. All I can say is, I am going to do my best to work with you, and I hope you will do the best you can to work with me on the Budget Committee and get something done.

The second story comes from Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and likewise involves his early experiences in the Senate.

When I was a very new and appointed Senator, I asked a Senator here who was managing the bill on the other side of the aisle to call me when it came time to offer an amendment. I was tied up in a committee. I was surprised that the bell rang in the committee and the vote was going on. I came to the floor. I am not one to be shy in expressing my opinions, and I went to the then manager of the bill and started to berate him. Senator Mike Mansfield came to me and said: Senator, you should not use language like that on the floor of the Senate. I told Senator Mansfield what had happened. He, as the majority leader, looked at that Senator and said: Is that true? The manager of the bill said: “That’s true, but that amendment would not have passed.” Senator Mansfield said: “Have you got your amendment, Senator?”

He took the amendment from me, he stopped the vote that was going on, he returned the bill to second reading, and he offered my amendment. That amendment passed, and it has benefited my State for a long time.

I merely state it here today to say every Senator on this floor has equal rights. The 50/50 that we have is the result of the voters of the country, but there need not be a division between this body in terms of the 50. We work on the basis of a majority. We can have a tie at almost any time, or a majority with a quorum.

We are looking at a process where every Senator has the right now to understand the responsibility that comes from this agreement that has been reached. I congratulate the Democratic majority leader; I congratulate our future Republican majority leader for reaching this conclusion. I share the feelings of my friend from West Virginia [Sen. Robert Byrd] that this is an act, really, of true statesmanship. I believe those who have not agreed should help us make it work because it will take the relationships that exist between myself and my great friend from West Virginia to make this work. I not only trust the Senator from West Virginia, I trust him with my life, and he knows that. We have never had an argument. I have served with him as chairman; he has served with me as chairman. We have resolved every difference we ever had before we came to the floor. That is what is going to happen now.

Most of the work we do will be in committee. This resolution gives us the ability to work in committee on the basis of trust. I honor the two leaders for what they have done. I am proud of the Senate today.

I can get impatient with pundits and commentators who wax poetic about the good old days in the Senate when everyone went to each other’s homes for dinner and drinks and bipartisanship was in vogue. But there really has been something lost in the last two or three decades, and it has to do with honor and decency.

In my opinion, while it’s true that there is some measure of “both sides” being responsible for the breakdown, by far the most damaging development has been the emergence of Senator Mitch McConnell as the leader of the Republicans. I can get into all the reasons why I believe this some other time, but here I just wanted to give you a little peek at how things used to be different, and better.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.