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Without Dealmakers, Can Congress Compromise?

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What does it mean when a dealmaker backs away from the leadership table?

Amid news that a sharply divided Congress is embroiled in yet another budget battle, and the country once again faces the possibility of a government shutdown, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced last week that he's giving up his leadership position in the Republican caucus.

"The rarest privilege of being a senator is your autonomy. You're free to do whatever you want to do," he told Weekend Edition Sunday. "When you go to the leadership table you exchange some of your independence for the seat at the leadership table. I'm giving that up to get my independence back."

Alexander is known for a willingness to work with Democrats on tough issues. With just days for both Democrats and Republicans to reach an agreement or risk another eleventh-hour vote to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 2, that loss of leadership might have a huge impact.

This time, the bickering is over the latest stopgap spending bill. House Republicans want more than $1 billion in spending cuts to offset spending for disaster relief; Democrats are opposed.

The impasse has echoes of this summer's protracted debt-limit debate and it's indicative of the dysfunction in Congress.

"What troubles me now is that the institution itself is being trashed," Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, told Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish. "Every time we have one of these crises ... it causes the public to see Congress in a much more negative light."

In the past year, many senators known to cross the aisle have retired or stepped down, including Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Sen. Bob Bennett (D-UT).

Compromise 'A Four-Letter Word'

Bennett was a three-term U.S. senator before Tea Party activists helped oust him in the last election. He's now a senior policy adviser with the firm Arent Fox, along with his former Senate colleague Byron Dorgan (D-ND).

Bennett tells Cornish that these days he sees senators come in from the House — where attitudes are usually more partisan — and start off a Senate term not appearing to want to be dealmakers.

"But after two or three years, [they] turn into dealmakers," he said. "I'm hoping [the] situation will not be permanent."

Dorgan says he thinks the attitudes in Congress have changed partly as a result of interest groups that give politicians an ultimatum between their principles and compromise.

"Because if you compromise, that's a four-letter word; it means you've decided not to stand on your principles," Dorgan says. "That has caused all kind of problems."

Crises Spur Cooperation

Bennett recalls one of the most contentious issues he faced during his last term in Congress: the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

He says when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress that he had run out of tools to fix the economy, "all partisanship ... disappeared very quickly."

At times, it seems only crisis points drive bipartisanship, but Bennett says he's optimistic.

"My hope is, my history tells me, [the] bitter partisanship we're seeing right now won't necessarily be permanent," he says.

Bennett says it might take another crisis or that political imperatives might change among the electorate.

"You talk about tea parties; we've seen this kind of thing before," he says. "Last time it was led by Ross Perot. And everyone predicted it would overwhelm the system.

"There were some adjustments, but it didn't. But people got about the business of Congress again after all the anger died down."

Citing the acrimonious debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling, Dorgan says the key is to get back to legislating.

"There's no preordained destiny that this country will always do well," he says. "It needs some tender loving care these days; for people to work together to fix what's wrong."

Ideally, he says, lawmakers will recognize the need to compromise.

"Compromise is the way things get done," he says. "It's the lubrication of democracy: where two people who disagree decide to come together and reach consensus for the good of the country."

Bennett cites McConnell saying that the best time to solve big problems is when you have divided government.

"That is, a Democrat in the White House, Republicans in control of Congress. Both parties [have a] stake in the outcome, responsibility for what happens," he says. "Neither party can attack the other because both were involved."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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