The U.S. Senate’s polarizing debate and passage of three monumental bills over the past two years have led most Americans to believe that Republicans and Democrats simply cannot — or will not — work together. The economic stimulus, health care, and financial reform bills — trillions of dollars worth of legislation that touched every citizen — were all essentially party-line votes.
An examination of senators’ voting practices last year inspired this headline from a Congressional Quarterly analysis: "2009 Was The Most Partisan Year Ever."
But ask the men and women who have actually served in the chamber, and you’ll hear a less rancorous tune.
Almost all of the senators who are retiring or were defeated in their primary elections this year say that it’s hardly the most partisan of times. One goes so far as to call such a notion “absurd.” History is replete, they say, with more intense periods of animosity, more anger, and violence.
These departing veteran senators say that partisanship isn’t solely measured by vote totals in Congress' upper chamber, but by a bitterness that floods Washington as a whole and often soaks the entire nation.
“It’s possible that this is a very partisan time, and yet it’s not the most partisan time,” said Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. The son of former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, who was elected in 1962, recalled the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras as more destructive than today’s political squabbles.
“I remember seeing machine gun nests on top of government buildings here in Washington to protect them from demonstrators,” he said of the 1960s. “We had political assassinations — Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy. We had the anti-war demonstrators shot at Kent State University.”
Republican Sen. Robert Bennett, 77, agreed. “I’m old enough to remember Vietnam,” he said. “I'm old enough to remember the bitterness.”
For other senators, Congress' most caustic days were more recent. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., remembered the beginning of the “Reagan Revolution” as a time when “the intensity was much higher, much more visceral than what we have now.”
At the beginning of 1981, Ronald Reagan had just walloped Jimmy Carter in a landslide election, and Republicans had regained control of the Senate after 25 years of Democratic rule. But the House was still controlled by Democrats and their speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill.
“Tip O’Neill would just try to beat our brains out,” said Gregg, who had just arrived on the Hill as a freshman congressman that year. “He backed up a truck of manure every morning to your office door and unloaded it … and he was surrounded by people who took no prisoners.”
It’s all about the numbers
Some blame the perception of partisanship in the current Senate on the body’s party breakdown.
“It’s always been partisan,” said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. “But the reason it’s so partisan now is because of the big, wide separation in numbers.”
Since the beginning of the Obama administration, Senate Democrats have held either 60 or 59 votes — the first time a party has achieved such power in over three decades. Those filibuster-proof (or near filibuster-proof) majorities render Republicans virtually powerless to stop any united Democratic agenda. With a supermajority, the need for compromise is almost obsolete.
“So, what else is there to do except to try to stop [legislation],” Bunning said. “We can’t have any input on a bill.”
Despite its ebbs and flows, partisanship in the Senate is as old as the Constitution that created it. And it sometimes manifests itself in forms that don’t leap out at the first glance at charts that detail party-line votes.
“It’s always been a partisan body,” explained Senate historian Don Ritchie. “It’s not just Republicans and Democrats.”
When Ritchie first came to the Senate in 1976, each party was divided internally with conservative and liberal wings within both parties. Liberal Republicans voted with liberal Democrats, and conservative Democrats allied with like-minded lawmakers from across the aisle.
And while the result was usually the bipartisan passage of bills, the dynamic also created fierce partisan battles between the two groups.
The rift between liberals and conservatives over the Vietnam War, Bennett said, “was every bit as acid and toxic as the bitterness you have now.”
The Utah senator remembers sitting in the office of a House Democrat from Texas — Bennett was working as a lobbyist at the time — when the Texan received a phone call inviting him to an event at the White House with President Lyndon Johnson, also a Democrat from the Lone Star State.
“Tell him no,” the congressman barked to his staff. Bitterly at odds with a president of his own party and even his own state, this lawmaker refused even to take the phone call himself.
After the war limped to an end, public distaste over the Watergate scandal flushed in successive waves of Democrats, then Republicans. Conservative Southern Democrats were replaced by Republicans. Beginning in the 1980s, historian Ritchie said, the political parties grew more cohesive, erasing most intraparty fault lines and creating the classic two-party matchups of today.
Now, Ritchie says, “the Democratic conference is essentially a liberal conference and the Republican conference is essentially a conservative conference.”
Ritchie said the source of the parties’ reconstruction can be traced back to their constituents. “The Senate had nothing to do with that,” he added. “These are people that the voters sent here.”
Regardless of its origins, veterans of the institution are quick to say that partisanship should not be despised for its own sake.
“Partisan politics,” declared Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, “is what made the place.”
He cited the founding fathers’ debates in Philadelphia that created the country and formed its government, saying it was hardly a sedate and cordial summit. “There was a real clash of ideals … it was raucous, rollicking, tough. It was as partisan as anything, in fact, more so in some ways.”
Dodd said he’s “mystified” by arguments that senators should become more bipartisan. “It’s the wrong words,” he contended, “we need better civility in the process.”
With 30 years experience in the Senate, Dodd worries that there has been an increase in deeply personal attacks, with members seeking to destroy reputations or link an opponent to a polarizing group. Such behavior, Dodd claims, prevents senators from working together.
“If I attack you personally, there’s no way in the world you're going to sit down with me and find that common ground,” Dodd said. “That just defies human nature.”
Msnbc.com's Carrie Dann contributed to this story