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Archive for Monday, January 9, 2006

In praise of bipartisanship

January 9, 2006

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A generation ago, there were no fiercer combatants in the Senate's heated debates over Vietnam than two prairie state senators who rose from modest beginnings to become World War II heroes, congressmen, senators and eventually presidential nominees.

But even then, Republican Bob Dole, a staunch war supporter, and Democrat George McGovern, a bitter critic, set aside strong views on Vietnam to advance a mutual goal of expanding government food programs so hungry Americans had enough to eat.

Now in their 80s, they're still active, like modern-day versions of the Sunshine Boys whose continuing alliance illustrates the value of a bipartisan approach to national problems, even in a partisan era.

"Obviously, we've had some differences on some issues but never on issues that affect the nutritional health of American children," McGovern told a recent news conference, launching a drive to overcome the lagging participation by many schools and school districts in a program they helped create that provides free and reduced-price breakfasts to poor children.

Joining with business, governmental and nonprofit groups, they urged schools and administrators to take better advantage of the fully funded federal entitlement program. Only 44 percent of eligible students receive breakfasts, though the proportion is about 10 points higher in Texas.

Though they disagree on Iraq as they once did over Vietnam, "you don't see many senators who get along as well as we do," said Dole, whose 1996 presidential loss was decisive, but not as much as McGovern's in 1972.

"We're two people who understand there's life after losing," said Dole, who practices law in Washington, while his wife, Elizabeth, serves in the Senate he once led as majority leader. McGovern, who lives mostly in his native South Dakota and Montana, last held public office as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations' food agencies during the Clinton administration.

Working together across party lines, both agreed, is a lot harder in these highly partisan times.

In fact, one thing that has brought Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona criticism in his own party has been his willingness to form alliances with top Democrats on issues they both favor.

Some years ago, McCain worked closely with Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to restore relations with Vietnam, where both earned medals for heroism. Later, he joined with Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to push a controversial campaign finance bill that most Republicans strongly opposed and President Bush only reluctantly signed.

They're not the only ones. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut have joined to establish effective oversight over federal homeland security efforts.

And on a number of committees, personal relations between the GOP chairman and the top Democrat are far better than the policy disagreements that generally attract the most attention.

One place bipartisanship has diminished is between the White House and Congress. Many lawmakers say Bush has made less effort to reach out to the congressional minority than predecessors of both parties did.

Much of that criticism has been anonymous. But Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania was candid in his call for withdrawal from Iraq in noting that the first President George Bush sought his views as a pro-defense Democrat and the second did not.

That is a surprising aspect of current presidential-congressional relations, given the reputation for bipartisanship Bush had in Texas and the fact that, like his two predecessors, he acknowledged in his initial inaugural address that the public wanted less wrangling.

That attitude is hardly new.

Over the last quarter-century, notes Brown University historian James Patterson at the end of "Restless Giant," his epic rendering of the nation's course from 1974 to 2001, "the majority of the American people were less partisan, less attentive to political infighting" than politicians, interest groups and the news media.

Eventually, one hopes, their message will get through.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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