As the Senate headed for a showdown this week over a Democratic threat to erode the filibuster rule, a senior Republican was musing about the party leaders he'd known over his long career.
It should never have come to this, he said sadly. Previous leaders -- like Republican Howard Baker and Democrat Robert Byrd -- would have found a compromise long before the entire Senate came within hours of blowing itself up. Their counterparts today -- Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell -- barely speak to each other, except to hurl insults.
Fortunately, the crisis was averted because Republican John McCain and Democrat Chuck Schumer -- who also helped craft the bipartisan immigration bill -- again acted like grown-ups and saved the day, brokering a deal that forced both sides to bend a bit.
During critical negotiations, the official leaders were largely sidelined. As the Washington Post reported, "left to their own, Reid and McConnell could not have reached this pact," and their "treacherous relationship ... leaves the Senate in a dangerous position going forward on critical legislative negotiations."
The Senate suffers today from a profound failure of leadership -- in both parties.
Under McConnell, Republicans have badly abused the filibuster, blocking numerous nominations and requiring 60 votes on even minor issues.
But it was Reid who provoked the latest standoff, advocating changes in a rule he had ardently defended during the Bush administration when Republicans complained Democrats were unfairly blocking the president's judicial choices. His insistence on pushing the Senate to the brink of disaster was irresponsible and unnecessary.
Moderates in both parties have found life on Capitol Hill increasingly uncomfortable and unproductive. Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine quit with a blast of frustration: "What I like to call the sensible center has now virtually disappeared in Washington." Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman also retired, estranged from his party after losing a primary to a left-wing challenger who derided him for working with Republicans.
Dealmakers need partners, and the center of the Senate has hollowed out. Still, leadership can make a difference. As that senior Republican told us, McConnell and Reid have forgotten the lessons preached by Howard Baker, who served as Republican leader in the late '70s and early '80s.
In 1998, at a convocation celebrating his career, Baker recalled that during his tenure he often found himself "engaged in fire-breathing passionate debate with my fellow Senators" about incendiary issues from Watergate to the Panama Canal.
"But no sooner had the final word been spoken and the last vote taken," he said, "than I would usually walk to the desk of my most recent antagonist, extend a hand of friendship, and solicit his support for the next issue for the following day."
Like many politicians in Washington today, Reid and McConnell are enemies, not friends. They should listen to Baker. And Lincoln.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.