A Weekend Charm School for Legislators

It seems a distant memory: Democratic and Republican leaders promising to find "common ground" last November after voters said they wanted to keep a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress.

"Civility" became the political buzzword for 1997.

So what happened on the first day of the 105th Congress?

A contrite House Speaker Newt Gingrich apologized for ethical lapses and promised to do "everything I can to work with every member of this Congress." Then, instead of maintaining the spirit of conciliation, Republicans and Democrats promptly proceeded to debate angrily whether to extend the Gingrich ethics probe beyond the Jan. 21 deadline.

From the House floor, Republicans also served notice that they reserve the right to yank freshman Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) from her seat if election fraud charges are proved by the Republican she defeated, former Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove.

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For all the talk of civility, the House's raucous start suggested that this session would be no different from the last.

But from the disorder of political upheaval comes California Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who, along with a handful of Republicans and Democrats, insists that it's not too late to build a sense of "civility, respect and understanding" among members of both parties.

Their proposed sweetener to the ongoing sourness is a first-ever retreat in Hershey, Pa., in early March. The privately funded, weekend getaway to Pennsylvania's Lebanon Valley, including congressional spouses, is designed to let members get to know one another on neutral territory.

Maybe, said Dreier, if a member develops a personal relationship with a political foe--even gets to know the spouse and children--then, just maybe, the member will behave more like a civil servant and less like a political animal.

"It's very timely," Dreier said. "The [Gingrich] situation we've gone through in the last couple of weeks makes pulling this thing off more difficult, but at the same time more important."

Although it may be hard to imagine, there was a time when members of both parties spoke to one another--even partied together--after-hours.

When Dreier came to Congress in 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan and then-Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neil used to joke about fighting during the day and then bonding after-hours over their Irish heritage and mugs of beer.

The culture changed as more ideologically driven members arrived in Congress. Six out of 10 members sworn into office this week have been elected since 1990; too new to know the days when Democrats and Republicans could separate political from personal conflicts.

By 1995, when Republicans took control of the House, both sides had perfected the art of political insults through one-minute speeches--exhibitions akin to bloody undercards at Madison Square Garden.

Broadcast live on cable television at the start of each legislative day--just after the prayer and before the Pledge of Allegiance--members from each party take turns issuing verbal punches that stop just short of being personal, yet are caustic enough to inflict political damage.

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute compares the barbs to watching a husband and wife in a shaky relationship, "where every morning over breakfast, the husband says, 'Put some makeup on,' or . . . the wife says, 'Gee, you're getting fat.' . . . The result is that whoever you insult goes through the rest of the day steaming. By the time you are ready to discuss your relationship, you are ready to rumble."

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Searching for civility after the November election, some members suggested ending the six-decade-old tradition and move the "one-minute" speeches to the end of legislative day. The change would start members off in better moods, proponents said.

But opponents, mostly Democrats, argued that the move would only hurt whichever party is in the minority by limiting the underdogs' ability to set the tone of the day's political debate.

"To postpone one-minutes until a time when fewer are listening is to hamper expression in Congress," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who frequently used the forum during the last session as freshman class president.

Thus the disagreement over when to disagree apparently kept the idea from moving forward.

Still, Dreier believes a peaceful coexistence is a worthy and attainable goal. So far, more than 120 of the 435 members have signed up for the congressional retreat in March and about 300 are expected.

"We're not in any way trying to bring about a consensus on every public policy question that we face. In fact we all believe that vigorous debate is important," the congressman said, adding that fractious issues like the federal budget will not be brought up at the retreat.

"But the personal acrimony that we have seen in the past is something we are hoping we'll be able to mitigate."

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