Viewpoint

End at hand for partisan gridlock?

Senators are great glad-handers, not just with constituents but with each other. Every time a vote is called, they mill around in front of the rostrum, grabbing hands and patting each other's back.

But, as my colleague Dana Milbank noted, it was a poignant moment when Ted Stevens of Alaska, newly indicted for accepting unreported favors from an oilman, walked over to Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who uses a wheelchair because of age and illness, for support and consolation.

Stevens, 84, is a Republican, and Byrd, 90, a Democrat. But their bonds are far stronger than any partisan differences. For decades they've passed the Appropriations Committee chairmanship back and forth depending on which party held the majority.

Senate's ‘kings of pork'

Both men have become famous for using their committee posts to steer billions from the Treasury to their home states, defying colleagues who call them “kings of pork.”

They represent, if not the last, certainly the rear guard of a generation of senators who see their principal responsibility as helping their chronically needy citizens obtain federal aid that can spell the difference between subsistence and a decent living.

But as the Senate approaches a Nov. 4 election that will likely bring dramatic generational change, Stevens and Byrd are reminders of that body's changing culture. Democrats may well replace veteran Republican senators who are retiring this year in Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado.

Stevens' re-election now is in doubt. In New Hampshire, young John Sununu, one of the ablest of the Republican underclassmen, is facing a stiff challenge. Democrats are optimistic about markedly expanding their current two-vote Senate margin. Reaching the 60 seats that would stop Republican filibusters would require the Republicans to lose nine races.

Experienced pragmatists

As significant as the numerical potential is the changing character of the new senators who may arrive in this election. The likeliest winners are mainly centrists who have been tested in real-world politics and have little tolerance for ideological extremes.

Two of the top five Democratic prospects have been governors of conservative states. Sununu again faces Jeanne Shaheen, who as governor dealt with a Republican legislature and, to the disappointment of some Democrats, avoided a new broad-based tax to finance the schools.

The other former governor is Mark Warner of Virginia, favored to succeed retiring Sen. John Warner (no relation). Mark Warner, a millionaire businessman, also shared the capital with a Republican legislature and learned a wealth of practical wisdom about negotiating compromises.

That description also fits Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the likely Democratic nominee for Stevens' seat. Like most mayors of both parties, whatever the size of their cities, he has been held accountable by his constituents for the most basic of needs.

The last two on Schumer's list of top prospects are the Udall cousins, part of a Democratic dynasty. Tom and Mark Udall are the sons of Stewart and Morris Udall, who between them held the Tucson-area Arizona House seat for decades.

Mark and Tom serve together in the House, from Colorado and New Mexico, respectively. Mark has the more liberal district and voting record, but neither could be mistaken for a New York City congressman. The Republicans have put forward candidates more conservative than the retiring GOP senators and are underdogs in both races.

These five are likely recruits for the growing band of senators who, under McCain's leadership, saved the Senate from blowing up over judicial filibusters. If McCain and Obama are serious about moving beyond partisan gridlock, these folks might help.

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