From the bluest of states, a red senator of a different color

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; A02

So much for the Massachusetts Miracle.

The election of Republican Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's Senate seat was supposed to bring a seismic change to national politics. It did just that Monday night, but not in the way Republicans had hoped.

It was almost time to vote on the Senate jobs bill, the first major vote since Brown's arrival. Republicans were counting on their new member to be their "41st vote," the number needed to sustain filibusters and shoot down any and all Democratic proposals.

Brown, his desk in the back corner, was the only Republican in the room as Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered a final denunciation of the GOP before the vote. "My friends on the other side of the aisle are looking for ways not to vote for this," he said, accusing them of putting "partisanship ahead of people."

As Reid spoke, Brown was leafing through a Senate face book, learning to recognize his new colleagues. As soon as the vote was called, he strode quickly into the well and interrupted the clerk as he read the roll.

"Yes," Brown said quietly, and then, having become Reid's first vote, he rushed out of the room before Republican colleagues arrived. He stepped into the hallway, then waited for reporters to assemble around him.

"I'm not from around here," he said. "I'm from Massachusetts."

Back inside the Senate chamber, Maine's Susan Collins, a Republican moderate, followed Brown's lead and voted yes. The floodgates opened, and the GOP filibuster was broken with two votes to spare.

It was a good way to celebrate George Washington's birthday.

Three hours before the jobs-bill vote, the Senate chamber opened with its 117-year tradition of reading Washington's Farewell Address on his birthday. The current lawmakers evidently didn't think much of the tradition, for they assigned the reading to Roland Burris, the senator from Blagojevich. Total number of senators at their desks for the reading: zero.

That's too bad, for Washington's words were never more relevant. "The common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it," Burris read, haltingly, on the floor Monday afternoon. "It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill founded Jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another."

The Senate then moved to validate Washington's concern by taking up the jobs bill. The measure had been rolling toward swift and easy passage -- a tally of 80 votes had been anticipated -- because of a bipartisan deal negotiated between the top Democrat and Republican on the Finance Committee.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid upended the deal and replaced the bipartisan deal with a smaller bill favored by Senate liberals. Republicans, predictably, withdrew their support. And Democrats, predictably, went to the Senate TV studio to denounce the Republicans.

The ferociously partisan Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) explained why "it's sometimes more important to force a clear vote" rather than getting in the "swamp of negotiating" with Republicans. "I think continuing to force votes is the prerogative of the majority."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) went to the Senate floor to inform Republicans that "there comes a time when you've got to put politics aside."

With Republican leaders vowing opposition to Reid's version of the bill, it appeared that Democratic leaders had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. And it was a pointless snarl. Democrats scuttled a bipartisan deal full of provisions they supported, just to pick a fight with Republicans. Republicans, furious that their good-faith negotiations had been ignored, opposed the pared-down version of the bill even though they favored its contents.

It was, in other words, just what Washington warned about 214 years ago when he cautioned against "the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party."

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism," the first president wrote. "But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism."

One man who did seem to get that message from the ages was Brown, who it appears hasn't been in Washington long enough to be intoxicated by the Spirit of Party.

Moments before the vote, Brown's office sent out word that he planned to side with the Democrats, and some last-minute buttonholing by Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) evidently didn't change his mind.

"It's not a perfect bill, but it's certainly a bill that I felt comfortable enough to vote on, because it's the first step in creating jobs," Brown said. "And anytime you can make a small step, it's still a step."

Back on the Senate floor, the Democratic leader admired his unexpected gift for Washington's birthday. "Whether this new day was created by the new senator from Massachusetts or some other reason," said Reid, "I'm very, very happy."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company