Why divided government would be less divisive

By Susan M. Collins
Sunday, October 10, 2010

I don't know who first described politics as the "art of compromise," but that maxim, to which I have always subscribed, seems woefully unfashionable today.

It's a tough time to be a moderate in the U.S. Senate. Sitting down with those on the opposite side of a debate, negotiating in good faith, attempting to reach a solution -- such actions are now vilified by the hard-liners on both sides of the aisle. Too few want to achieve real solutions; too many would rather draw sharp distinctions and score political points, even if that means neglecting the problems our country faces.

A historian might say that at least we don't have one member caning another into unconsciousness, as when Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina flogged Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor in 1856. But in modern times, I have not seen the degree of bitter divisiveness and excessive partisanship now found in the Senate. The weapons of choice today are not metal-topped canes but poisonous words.

I imagine that is one reason that, just weeks from the November midterms, the American people are so angry with incumbents of all political persuasions, and particularly those who are in charge.

The way out is far from clear, but I would suggest that a divided government and a more evenly split Senate are more conducive to bipartisanship than the super-majorities and one-party control of the White House and Congress that we see today. When one party has all the power, the temptation is to roll over the minority, leading to resentment and resistance because the minority has so few options.

It wasn't always this way. There were times when those who worked to avert legislative implosions were more welcome. In 2005, a group of senators came together to negotiate an agreement for considering judicial nominees. This "Gang of 14," of which I was part, sought to avoid what was known as the "nuclear option," a change in the Senate rules that would have brought about a legislative meltdown.

Democrats had used the filibuster to prevent the confirmation of some of President George W. Bush's appellate court nominees. With the rallying cry that nominees deserved an "up or down vote," Republican Senate leaders threatened to change the rules to prevent filibusters from being used to block judicial confirmations. Democrats countered that the rights of the minority had always been protected in the Senate and warned that if the rules were changed, the Democrats would block action on everything.

While leaders on both sides hardened their positions, the 14 of us -- seven from each party -- joined to forge a solution. We established a new standard, stating that we would support filibusters of judicial nominees only in "extraordinary circumstances." Applying that standard, the Democratic senators in our coalition supported cloture for five of the seven filibustered nominees, resulting in their confirmation. In turn, we seven Republicans agreed to oppose the "nuclear option," thus thwarting the plans of the GOP leaders.

Our deal restored trust and helped preserve the unique culture of the Senate. It showed that the two parties could come together and reach an agreement in an atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith.

Oh, how times have changed. When I led the effort in 2009 to try to produce a more fiscally responsible stimulus bill, I was attacked by partisans on both sides. On the left, I was attacked by columnists for cutting $100 billion from the bill and mocked in the blogosphere as "Swine Flu Sue" for my contention that spending for a pandemic flu did not belong in the stimulus package but should be part of the regular appropriations process. On the right, I was denounced as a traitor and a RINO ("Republican in name only"), and one of my Republican colleagues targeted me for a campaign that generated tens of thousands of out-of-state e-mails denouncing me.

What changed to produce such incivility, such personal and painful and nasty debate?

During the past two years, the minority party has been increasingly shut out of the discussion. Even in the Senate, which used to pride itself on being a bastion of free and open debate, procedural tactics are routinely used to prevent Republican amendments. That causes Republicans to overuse the filibuster, because our only option is to stop a bill to which we cannot offer amendments.

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