Despite the raging controversy over Iraq military policy, President Bush's plea for bipartisan cooperation on the domestic agenda has a chance of success in the Senate. The reason has less to do with sympathy for the politically weakened chief executive than a dynamic that has gone largely unnoticed among the senators themselves.
Since the midterm election created a near-even balance in the Senate -- 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans -- serious efforts at cross-party communication have developed momentum.
Forty senators showed up on Jan. 9 for the first of a planned series of weekly 8 a.m. breakfasts designed to provide neutral ground where lawmakers of both parties can meet, rather than caucusing separately.
Yesterday, some 60 top Senate staffers of both parties held a similar breakfast session aimed at obliterating party lines and fostering personal relationships.
The core of the "Gang of 14" -- the self-selected bipartisan caucus that negotiated the compromise on judicial filibusters and averted an explosion in the Senate in 2005 -- has reconstituted itself as a "fire department" ready to douse other blazes.
And at the top, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have forged a personal relationship of unusual trust, and already they have used it to rescue landmark ethics legislation from threatened defeat and steer it to overwhelming passage.
All this has happened in the first weeks of a session in which the Senate had to adjust to a sudden shift of party control from Republicans to Democrats. No comparable spirit has developed in the House of Representatives, where the new Republican minority is complaining bitterly that dissenting views have been stifled.
There is no guarantee that the budding spirit of fellowship among senators will survive the Iraq debates and persist into the spring and summer, when other big issues reach the point of decision. But as Bush suggested in his State of the Union address, at least some issues -- education, immigration, health care, energy and the environment -- are open to bipartisan approaches.
The powerful current toward consensus-building flowing through the Senate has two sources. Politicians who were at home last autumn had their ears burned by constituents frustrated by the partisanship of the past Congress and its failure to act on issues of national concern. "The last election was a resounding repudiation of the status quo," said Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the few Republican survivors in New England.
And senators themselves are weary of excessive partisanship. "All our time is spent in team meetings, playing petty kindergarten games about what we're going to do to each other," said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, referring to the party caucuses.
Snowe and Alexander became ringleaders in two of the efforts to break down party barriers. Alexander teamed with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, reelected as an independent Democrat, as co-hosts of the new Tuesday morning breakfasts for senators of both parties.
With senators seated at round tables of eight, and the seats alternating between Republicans and Democrats, the breakfasts feature five-minute briefings by a pair of senators from opposite parties on an issue about to reach the floor, followed by 20 minutes of discussion of that issue and a half-hour of general conversation. No votes are taken; no policy set. But senators, without staff, get to listen to each other and build personal bonds.
After skipping a week for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the second such breakfast was held Tuesday, and 24 senators showed up, even though they were not expected to return to Congress until that night's State of the Union address. Lieberman and Alexander are hopeful the weekly breakfasts will become a staple on senators' calendars.
At the head of the reinvigorated core group of the Gang of 14 are Snowe and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. They have no fixed meeting schedule but a readiness to intervene if the opposing parties seem headed for gridlock.
Landrieu explained her motivation: "The success of the Gang of 14 was not just a success for the Senate. It was also a very personally rewarding experience. We met for rather long periods, with no staff allowed, and literally talked and listened very quietly. That experience changed me; it made me think we need to do this more often -- find a quiet time and use it to search for common ground."
The two efforts are complementary -- not in competition. The Snowe-Landrieu common ground group will work on policy; the Lieberman-Alexander breakfasts are primarily social. But Lieberman expressed the hope of all the organizers when he said, "We're trying to change the atmosphere here and make agreement a little easier to come by."