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The lost art of compromise in the halls of Congress

Lindsey Graham: Mr. Door Number Two

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We've been hearing a lot about how Washington is broken. You'll hear it from every candidate fortunate enough not to have "incumbent" beside his or her name.

But the problem in Washington is that nobody is making a deal — everybody is waiting for their car. Everyone's pointing their fingers at everyone else, but there's enough blame to go around. The minority is blindly standing on principles, refusing any scraps. The majority is pressing forward, convinced it has a mandate.

When Sen. Evan Bayh announced last month that he would not be seeking reelection, the Indiana Democrat pointed directly to the challenge of getting the two warring political parities to work together.

"There is too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving," he said. "Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples' business is not being done."

As an example, he pointed to a bipartisan deficit commission that Republican congressmen abandoned after the measure found Democratic support. He also noted a jobs bill that imploded because of complaints from the far end of both sides of the aisle.

But something surprising happened after Bayh decided he couldn't work with these people anymore — he found someone he could work with.

Bayh and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, have sent a letter to their respective party leaders in the chamber, calling for monthly bipartisan lunches they hoped would "facilitate a constructive dialogue between the political parties."

"Lindsey Graham is my friend," Bayh told CBS's Face the Nation earlier this month. "We need more friendships across the aisle because that's ultimately how you get principled compromise enacted."

On the same program, Graham was cautiously optimistic, recognizing the bile from both directions these days.

"We probably should start with plastic forks and knives for the first one, just to see how this works," he said.

If there is one politician who epitomizes compromise these days, it's Graham. In the minority, it's clear you have two options. Oppose everything, or find the conservative concessions you can squeeze into a Democratic bill.

And Graham is working hard to find those compromises. First on immigration, then energy, and now Guantanamo. Other than good will, those efforts haven't produced much change, but it's kept the door open and hope alive for the kind of compromise that could end partisan logjams.

Graham is worried about the same thing that Sen. Jim DeMint and other conservatives are worried about. The difference is that Graham wants to do what he can to blunt the consequences. He is worried that, without practical concessions, Democrats will do what they want.

Take healthcare reform, for example. Republicans have taken a hands-off approach to the Democratic healthcare plan, hoping that public opinion will be enough to defeat the bill. Republicans have used the threat of a filibuster, a procedure to indefinitely delay legislation without 60 votes, to great effect. But Democrats are passing healthcare reform through reconciliation, another parliamentary procedure that requires no Republican concessions.

"You just need a simple majority," Graham said on Face the Nation. "So reconciliation will empower a bill that was very partisan."

The real threat is that this won't be the last piece of very partisan legislation.

Last month, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) suggested that reconciliation may be the golden ticket to end GOP obstructionism — no compromise necessary.

"Why don't we deal with the other pieces of legislation this year under reconciliation, if we're allowed to do so under the rules," he told Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC show. "Let's focus on getting those rules to work so we can get healthcare and energy and global warming and jobs legislation, all of those kinds of things done that we were sent here to do."

In the end, Graham says it's about getting something done. Cars are nice, but anything is better than going home with nothing.

"Let's just remember this, was Ted Kennedy moderate? No. Was he effective? Yes. Was Strom Thurmond moderate? No. Was he effective? Yes," Graham said on Face the Nation. "You can be very liberal; you can be very conservative, but you also can be very effective. That's what we're losing up here, the willingness to be effective.

"I'm an American," he says. "There's nothing we can't do together. And if we don't work together, there's nothing we're going to do."

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