He sidled out a back door, tucked himself into a hallway alcove and dialed the one person he knew would help: Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), his Democratic counterpart, who as it happened was having a similar argument with liberals in his caucus, just around the corner, in the Lyndon B. Johnson Room.
“This has to be done,” Lott recalled telling Daschle, who only five months before had unseated him as majority leader. “Meet me on the floor, and let’s do it right now.”
“I’ll see you there,” Daschle replied.
Over the next hours, the two huddled in the Senate chamber, strategizing and polishing what would be one of the most sensitive and controversial measures of the past decade. Ultimately, the legislation now known as the Patriot Act sailed through the Senate on a 98 to 1 vote.
That quiet meeting on the Senate floor was an example of what Republican President George W. Bush, quoting Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had called “the warm courage of national unity” in the wake of a national catastrophe.
“This is the unity of every faith and every background,” Bush had said at a Washington National Cathedral prayer service Sept. 14, 2001. “It has joined together political parties in both houses of Congress.”
What wasn’t clear then was that this brief, transcendent commonality of purpose would not extend beyond the exigencies of national security and a series of emergency measures to save endangered businesses such as the airline industry. Other differences not only didn’t heal, they festered.
That period was marked by “an unusual amount of effort to find consensus and bipartisan agreement,” said Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who was then the leader of the House Democratic minority. “But it was somewhat obvious that’s what we needed to do after such a traumatic, devastating event for the whole country, and a worry that other events would follow.”
By the month after 9/11, however, the two parties had begun to argue over — and this does have a familiar echo in 2011 — how to stimulate the fragile economy.
By the fifth anniversary, so much rancor had developed over the war in Iraq that even national security couldn’t bring the country together. A deep political schism was evolving.
And now, a mere decade after the event that was supposed to change everything, the two parties seem irreversibly at odds, not only over long-standing philosophical questions, such as the role and size of government, but also the more fundamental issues of our national values.