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Why divided government would be less divisive

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This unfortunate phenomenon happened again with the recent consideration of the defense authorization bill, which included a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. I have supported ending that policy and was the sole Republican on the Armed Services Committee to vote for repeal. If gay individuals are willing to put on the uniform of our country, to be deployed in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, to risk their lives for their fellow citizens, then we should express our gratitude to them, not exclude them from serving or expel them from the military.

I recognized, however, that many of my colleagues disagreed, and that they should have the right to express their views and offer their amendments on this controversial issue -- as well as many others in the defense bill. But Majority Leader Harry Reid did not agree. Because of his stance, I found myself in the awkward position of voting against moving forward on legislation that I supported and that contained a change in policy I advocated.

This was the 116th time in this Congress that the majority leader or another Democrat filed cloture rather than agreeing to allow amendments to be debated. What concerns me even more is the practice of filling up the amendment tree to prevent Republican amendments -- this was the 40th time that was done.

By contrast, when the White House is controlled by one party and at least one chamber of Congress is in the hands of the other, the president has no choice but to reach out and negotiate. It would be a lot easier for President Obama to resist the hard left of his party if he could say he has to pursue legislation acceptable to a Republican House or Senate. Or better yet, from my perspective, both!

When I was a freshman senator in 1997, Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, as fine a gentleman as has ever graced the Senate chamber, advised me never to campaign against those with whom I served. The Senate is too small a place for that, he counseled. Campaign for your fellow Republicans and go to states with open seats, but do not campaign against your Democratic colleagues. It will poison your relationship with them.

Back then, most senators followed the "Chafee rule," but that soon changed. Now many enthusiastically campaign against their colleagues across the aisle. I was shocked when, in 2008, two Democratic senators came to Maine and unfairly criticized my work during my highly competitive race that year. My willingness to work with Democrats had been well established over the past decade, and there was no one running that year with more bipartisan legislative initiatives and accomplishments than I had. But that didn't stop them.

This year's elections have shown just how far the destruction of collegiality has progressed, with some lawmakers campaigning against senators in their own caucus by endorsing their primary opponents. Such personal campaign attacks have detrimental effects that last long after Election Day.

I am not suggesting that civility requires us to accept the unacceptable. Good manners must not prevent the telling of unpleasant truths. When Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine went to the Senate floor 60 years ago to deliver her famous "Declaration of Conscience," she did not do so to demonize Wisconsin's Sen. Joseph McCarthy personally but to denounce his actions. She certainly gave him great offense, but she spoke the truth about his tactics of ruining reputations, crushing free speech and smearing opponents. Telling the truth about McCarthy's conduct in strong, tough language was far more important than worrying about offending him.

In contrast, consider the House member from my party who interrupted Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress a year ago by yelling "You lie!" Or recall the House Democratic member whose contribution to the health-care debate consisted of asserting that Republicans had a two-word plan: "Die quickly." These are decidedly uncivil acts, designed not to reveal the truth but only to offend.

President Ronald Reagan understood that there would be times when civility for civility's sake was not the premier value. But it was his fundamental commitment to civility that allowed him to work so well with Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill and to forge a genuine friendship with him. His belief in the power of political civility also led to his formulation of the 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican."

So where does this leave us?

Students of American culture might ask whether incivility is a strictly Washington phenomenon or a reflection of changes in our society at large. That question reminds me of the response that then-Sen. Lowell Weicker gave to an unhappy constituent who denounced him and his colleagues as "a bunch of liars, thieves and womanizers." Weicker calmly replied: "Well, it is, after all, a representative form of government."


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