Friendships, Civility Fade Amid Partisan Bitterness

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a wealthy heart transplant surgeon, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who grew up in a hardscrabble existence in the West, say they are friends. At least, they used to be before the Senate became roiled in parliamentary warfare.

In a squabble recalling the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” which starred James Stewart as a principled senator who held up the chamber’s business by non-stop talking, Frist has decided that he may try to ban the filibuster delaying tactic as applied to President Bush’s judicial nominees. His main foe is Reid, who says he’ll do whatever it takes to stop Frist’s action.

Some in Congress are wondering if the current ill will between Senate Republicans and Democrats has become so entrenched that it could linger for years. For many months in the U.S. House, members of both parties _ including Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California _ have complained that politeness has all but disappeared from their chamber. Even behind the scenes, comity has fled, the old “let’s-go-out-for-a-drink-after-work” bonhomie no longer exists, and there is a new mean-spirited lack of cooperation.

Now, in the more decorous Senate chamber, its members are wondering the same thing. Some still recall the epithet that Vice President Dick Cheney last year directed at Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on the Senate floor as a mark of the decreasing civility. And some see the Senate on the verge of dissolving into a do-nothing body, with vindictiveness and retaliation as its hallmarks.

Reid _ who, unlike many Senate Democrats, opposes abortion and gun control _ insisted this week that he “likes” Frist. He said the GOP leader is in public service for the right reasons, and they typically talk daily.

But the Democratic leader also called Frist a “radical Republican” and wondered whether Frist’s war against the filibuster has resulted from the Tennessee doctor’s political ambitions toward a 2008 presidential run. “I wanted the Senate to work the way I remember,” Reid said. “I’m afraid his presidential aspirations are getting in the way of his Senate duties.”

Reid was personally offended by Frist’s video address Sunday to the Family Research Council, a conservative group which has publicly contended that Democrats backing a filibuster over Bush judicial choices are opposed to people of faith. “I really resent people bringing religion into politics,” Reid said, adding that Frist “should not have spoken to that group.”

Earlier this year, when the Republican National Committee attacked Reid as an obstructionist, Frist defended him and said he did not want his watch in Washington to degenerate into personal bickering. He said he intended to run the Senate in a bipartisan fashion. That was then. Now, Frist rails against Democrats for blocking 10 judicial nominations (Democrats point to the confirmation of 205 other Bush nominees).

The GOP leader stands by his Family Research Council remarks, despite misgivings among some advisers and notwithstanding Democrats’ ire. Frist continued to insist that if he must, he’ll ride roughshod over Democrats by invoking what Capitol Hill is calling “the nuclear option” _ calling for a vote to bar filibusters on judicial confirmations, a rules change that can be made with just 51 votes. (Republicans have 55 Senate members, while stopping a filibuster requires 60 votes.)

Bush initially promised to stay out of the Senate’s internal battle, but then changed his mind and now says he wants votes on all of his nominees. Cheney last week said that, as Senate president, he’d break any tie vote, if necessary.

Reid said the filibuster has been used for more than 200 years, including for judicial nominees, and that Republicans blocked 69 of Democratic former President Bill Clinton’s judicial choices. The change Frist is trying to accomplish is “illegal,” he said grimly.