Washington It was not nostalgia or the desire for companionship that brought four former Senate leaders together in a meeting room on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning - but rather a sense of alarm at the breakdown in civility and at the fierce partisanship that has infected Congress and blocked action on national priorities.
Politely but firmly, not wanting to criticize their successors in what styles itself as a great deliberative body, the two Republicans and two Democrats who once tried to run the place warned that something had gone awry.
With a 51-49 division in the Senate, neither party has been able to advance an agenda. The war issue has stalemated debate on any other topic. Republicans have filibustered Democratic resolutions aimed at limiting the war, while the Democrats have banned the GOP from even offering its alternatives.
Meantime, the House, after a fast start rushing through noncontroversial items, has slowed to a crawl, filling time with investigations.
Howard Baker of Tennessee, one of the four former leaders, said that "there is a growing view, and certainly it's my view, that while partisan debate is essential to our system, it has grown so hostile, it has grown so raucous, that it has now had a corrosive effect on our ability to govern."
Another of the four, George Mitchell of Maine, remarked that "American democracy requires both competition and cooperation, and the public really wants both. But there is no commonly accepted standard by which to judge it. Nobody wants a one-party system, but people constantly ask, 'Why can't they work together?' Understandably, the media emphasize confrontation and competition. Our effort, without stifling the competition, is to put more emphasis on the potential for cooperation."
Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, "Our goal is not to find common ground among the four of us on every single issue, but to find those areas on which common ground can be found, and then see if we can become the catalyst for bringing that common ground to Congress."
As an example, Bob Dole of Kansas said he and Daschle have almost completed a draft report on agricultural policy that will be offered to Congress as the lawmakers take up reauthorization of the farm bill.
Both men seemed to be excited by the ideas they had collected at forums around the country and by prospects for converting America's abundance of food and grain supplies into new sources of energy - "not just biofuels but solar and other forms," Daschle exclaimed - aiding the rural economy in the process.
Listening to them, it was possible to forget, for the moment, that they all were party leaders as well as Senate leaders. The "common ground," to use Daschle's term, was weightier than the Republican labels on Baker and Dole or the Democratic brands on Daschle and Mitchell.
The occasion for the meeting was the formal launch of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a foundation-sponsored organization with a staff of 20 and a budget of $7 million a year, with the lofty goal of showing that "evidence-based, collaborative approaches can gain the public and political momentum needed to forge political consensus."
The four former Senate leaders know more than almost anyone how difficult it is to find such agreement. So they are choosing their targets with care. The Iraq War is not on the agenda. They have launched a national security initiative, to be headed by retired Gen. Jim Jones, the former NATO supreme commander. But the emphasis of the study will be on nonmilitary applications of American power and influence.
Meantime, in addition to the agriculture and energy studies, they may offer "common ground" approaches to other problems. Mitchell, for example, thinks they could synthesize the best suggestions on improving port security and perhaps take on part of the challenge of the dysfunctional health care system.
Beyond the specific policy ideas they may generate, the hope is that the sight of these four very diverse characters and strong-minded leaders working together will serve as an example to current senators.
As I have reported, many senators are frustrated themselves by the lack of serious discussion across party lines, and are reaching out to join each other in informal conversations. The push from the four former leaders cannot help but encourage their efforts - and that is a good thing for the country.