The Senate was designed not as a representative, small-d democratic body, but as a deliberately minuscule assemblage, capable of taking up the most serious national challenges and dealing with them appropriately because of the perspective and insulation provided by its lengthy terms and diverse constituencies.
Its best leaders have been men who were capable, at least on occasion, of rising above partisanship or parochial interest and summoning the will to tackle overriding challenges in a way that almost shamed their colleagues out of their small-mindedness.
Many forces -- from the money chase, to the party realignments, to the intrusiveness of 24-hour media -- have weakened the institutional bonds of that Senate. But it is the absence of the ethic embodied and enforced by its leaders that is most crippling.
Since President Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009, the Senate has confirmed two Supreme Court nominees, revamped the student loan system and removed obstacles to women and others pursuing equal pay. The Senate also has approved three laws – the economic recovery act, the health care overhaul and financial regulatory reform – that contain within them scores of achievements. Had the major items in these bills been passed separately, the last 18 months would have been crammed with one success after another (or one tough defeat after another, depending on your party).
Senate veterans say members who want to eliminate the filibuster entirely, or even impose severe limits, are members who haven't served in the minority. Dodd urged 10 Democrats pushing for change to take that long view. That earned him this Daily Kos headline: "Dodd insists Senate remain paralyzed after he leaves." McConnell recounted the surprise result when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) proposed eliminating the filibuster in January 1995, right after Republicans had taken over the Senate. "Every single Republican voted against changing the filibuster rule at a time when we would have most benefited from doing it," he said.
McConnell advised impatient junior Democrats to remember all the Senate has done over the last 200 years "to save America from the worst excesses." He might as well have added, "Just like we Republicans are trying to do now." It's what we at that breakfast all were thinking as we tried in our minds to untangle a Gordian knot of competing and shifting interests, and locate an answer to the core question: What kind of Senate would best serve not the partisans or the traditionalists or the young Turks, but the nation that depends on it?