Wishes for a new spirit of bipartisanship

Posted on January 1, 2007

When I became governor in 1979, a reporter asked the Democratic speaker of the House what he was going to do about the young Republican governor. "I'm going to help him,'' Ned McWherter said, "because if he succeeds, our state succeeds." My hope for the new year is that more of Speaker McWherter's Tennessee philosophy will infect Washington, D.C. I believe the November elections were as much about the conduct of business in Washington as about the conduct of the war in Iraq. Voters want members of Congress to act like grownups and work on big issues and to stop playing partisan, kindergarten games. That's why Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and I are hosting the first weekly breakfast meeting of a new bipartisan group of senators on Jan. 9 in the U.S. Capitol. Our purpose is to create an opportunity for senators to know one another better across party lines so that we can identify common interests and work on issues that are important to our country. There will be no staff, no media and no policy statements. The environment in the Senate has changed since I first went to work there 40 years ago this week as legislative assistant to Howard Baker. Then, Democratic leader Mike Mansfield and Vermont Republican Sen. George Aiken began each day together with coffee. Republican leader Everett Dirksen was a confidante of President Lyndon Johnson. Senate couples hosted one another in their homes at bipartisan "supper clubs." Many Senate couples spent weekends in Washington and saw each other then. Now, most senators fly home for the weekend. Many spouses are almost never in Washington. The uncertain Senate schedule discourages supper clubs. Almost every spare minute is taken up in partisan team meetings, leaving little time for opportunities to know one another across party lines. For example, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays Republican and Democratic senators meet separately for lunch — mostly to plot each other's defeat. It's not brain surgery to know that it's easier to work together if we know one another better. We senators will have our hands full when we return to Washington this week. Terrorism. Iraq. Energy independence. Competitiveness. Federal spending. Immigration. There are other contributors to today's partisan rancor, including 24/7 news coverage, special-interest influence and the closely divided Senate. Our bipartisan breakfasts will be only a modest step — but small steps in the right direction are one good way to get where you want to go. During the eight years Speaker McWherter and I worked together, we figured out ways to pay good teachers more, bring the automobile industry to Tennessee, and build one of the nation's best four-lane highway systems. Family incomes grew. The voters liked those results well enough that, when my terms ended, they elected Ned McWherter governor. Working together on big issues also usually turns out to be good politics.