Reaching for the Center: Realists Take Charge

The election whupping marked the end of George W. Bush's radical experiment in partisan government — and a plea for politicians to get serious about solving problems

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Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld, speaks in the Oval Office of the White House.

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Which may be the most compelling case for a bit of optimism in a difficult time. In a meeting with political columnists, Reid said, "It's not a time to get even with the Republicans; it's a time to treat them the way they didn't treat us." And then he announced that he and Nancy Pelosi, who will be Speaker of the House, had decided to open the House-Senate conference committees to the press. This may seem a small point, but it has great symbolic relevance. The conferences are where the most important legislative action takes place, where compromises are worked out between House and Senate versions of legislation and where, in the recent past, all sorts of nefarious special deals for lobbyists and pork for legislators have been inserted without public scrutiny. In the old days, the conferences were public. They've been closed for at least the past 10 years, and during that time, pork-barrel earmarks have increased tenfold. It's not impossible that this arcane little adjustment will restore bipartisan compromise to its honored place as the essential act in a working democracy, and restore pork to its sordid, if greasily necessary, corner of the legislative dance. "We may actually have to work on Saturdays," Reid said, in a reference to the bankers' hours kept by the Republican Congress. "And I want to be clear, bipartisanship doesn't mean hugs and kisses. It's not going to be touch football; it's going to be a free-for-all. We're going to come out of that chamber covered in mud and with plenty of bruises, but that's the only way to get anything accomplished."

After a dark congressional session dominated by such pressing topics as the fate of Terri Schiavo, flag-burning and gay-marriage amendments--and the refusal to seriously address health care, energy independence, immigration or the war in Iraq--Reid's modest promise that his Senators will have some mud on the outside of their boots is realistic ... and also kind of exhilarating.

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