David Rogers: The lost Senate





[David Rogers is Senior Congressional Reporter for Politico]

Thirty years ago this fall, Ted Kennedy was running for president, Robert Byrd ruled the Senate floor as majority leader and a boyish Max Baucus had already jumped ahead of his freshman class by securing a seat on the powerful Finance Committee.

At West Point, Army Capt. Jack Reed resigned his commission to enter Harvard Law School. In Brooklyn, state Assemblyman Chuck Schumer, Flatbush’s version of a young Lyndon Johnson, prepared to run for the House. And in Louisville, Ky., Jefferson County Judge Mitch McConnell waited — consolidating power, speaking around the state, but always with an eye toward the Senate, where he had interned for his hero, Sen. John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.), during the great civil rights debate of 1964.

“That was when I first decided to try,” McConnell says.

Change is a great constant in Congress: One generation is forever giving way to the next. But to look back 30 years at the Senate — when this reporter first came to Washington — is to see the last remnant of something now lost from American government.

In 1979, a solid quarter of the senators had lived through the civil rights debate that so inspired McConnell. And in them, elements of the old Senate “club” still endured. Television had yet to intrude, preserving a greater intimacy and drawing senators to the floor to hear one another’s speeches. Rather than cover the Senate from TV screens, reporters were literally in the room, watching from galleries with a wider, more personal view of the protagonists below.

Among the senators themselves, there were fewer former House members than today; there were many more former governors and more state delegations where a Democrat held one seat and a Republican held the other. The Capitol’s old Styles Bridges private dining room — now often empty — was a gathering place for both parties. When dusk fell, bourbon came out in the offices of Southern senators, timed to the evening call of the whippoorwill back home.

Byrd, standing center stage, had come up through the House, where his classmate Tip O’Neill was now speaker. But with his white hair combed back and puffed up, the proud West Virginian was every inch the Senate man — with the House long put behind him.

O’Neill met with reporters every day before the House opened; Byrd held a weekly news conference — on Saturdays, to maximize the impact on the Sunday papers. And when Ronald Reagan swept into power in the 1980 election, Byrd resisted calls to don formalwear for the Inauguration ceremonies. The coal miner’s son kept to a business suit; O’Neill, to the amusement of Kennedy, obliged Reagan with the help of a Boston tailor and a size “52 stout” pair of striped pants and gray cutaways.

Today’s Senate is a world apart.

Kennedy died in August, leaving a gaping hole in the chamber. Byrd is so weakened by age that he couldn’t stand to deliver his floor tribute to his onetime rival and close friend.

From his second-floor Capitol office, McConnell has grown into the implacable master of a new regime of bloodless, 60-vote protocols — rather than the old-style filibuster he witnessed as an intern. While Schumer, the relentless campaign director who brought his Democrats back to power, embodies a new version of the old senatorial club: the political party as family...

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