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March 20, 2014 10:16 AM What It Takes To Be An Effective Senator

By Martin Longman

No one can dispute that Congress is broken. The Senate has been particularly dysfunctional in recent years. In the House, at least, a majority can pass bills. But, even now, there are issues that don’t fit into the red/blue framework, where senators of good will can work across the aisle to find common ground. When you dig beneath the partisan bickering, you’ll find that actual legislating still goes on, albeit on increasingly shrunken turf.

Most people would agree that Teddy Kennedy was an outspoken liberal, but his name is tied to the much-reviled No Child Left Behind education bill signed by President George W. Bush. Whether you like teaching to the test or not, it was this willingness to work with the Republicans that made Kennedy the most effective senator of the last half-century. These days, big legislation like NCLB is seemingly impossible, but the principle is the same. To be an effective senator, you have to build relationships with the other side and work constructively with legislators who you may be denouncing in public. Maybe you disagree about the proper size of government but you both have parents with Alzheimer’s disease. You can agree to set aside more money for the NIH to do research on prevention and treatment.

This is why I find it encouraging that Cory Booker had a three-hour lunch with Ted Cruz last week.

“We went to a place close to the Capitol and we sat, what was going to probably be an hour meeting, we sat for three hours,” Booker said. “He and I sat for three hours looking for common ground. We found some good areas that we agree on.” The newly installed senator said that the pair discussed the economy, and he praised Cruz’s intelligence.
“There was no filibusters going on, he did not read ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’” Booker cracked. “We had probably one of the best constitutional law discussions since I got out of law school. And I loved it, we just had a great intellectual discussion, but we quickly moved to … there are trends in the economy that have nothing to do with partisanship that are just bad.”
Citing wage stagnation and youth unemployment, Booker added: “We talked about what the facts were and then started trying to find ways we might get solutions.”

Getting Ted Cruz to drop his act for even fifteen minutes and talk seriously about policy is an accomplishment in itself. I doubt their conversation will lead anywhere, although it might, but the meeting was not a stand-alone for Sen. Booker.

Booker said his meeting with Cruz was just one of many he has planned. In fact, he said he intends to sit down with every Republican in the Senate.
“I’m going to meet with every single Republican, every single one of my colleagues,” Booker said, saying he has been working with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and has met with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

If you can get John McCain and Orrin Hatch to speak candidly, they’ll speak in glowing terms about Teddy Kennedy. Sen. Hatch, in particular, worked constructively with Kennedy over the years. As recently as March 2009, they teamed up to pass the Serve America Act to expand AmeriCorp.

Known as the Serve America Act, the Kennedy-Hatch bill would triple the number of AmeriCorp volunteers to 250,000 and boost the educational stipend they receive to meet President Barack Obama’s goal of teaming community service with tuition assistance.
It creates new “corps” focused on health care, clean energy, education and disaster response.
“This is something that will do an immense amount of good in our society,” Hatch said. “People don’t go into national service because the pay is good, they do it because they have a desire to give back to their country and their community.”

Reading that seems almost anachronistic. Could something like that really have occurred during Obama’s presidency? Yes, it did.

Sen. Booker seems to understand what it is going to take for him to have any influence in the Senate. I take that as a positive.

Martin Longman is the Web Editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune. He has worked as a community organizer for ACORN/Project Vote and as a political consultant for Democracy for America.

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