Congress calls on Henry Clay in budget debate

Forget funding the government or sorting out conservative social policies. In some quarters, the question of the day in Congress was, "What would Henry Clay do?"

Revered as the nation's "Great Compromiser," Clay has made an extraordinary number of cameos in the current budget drama — a saga filled with people who claim to be aspiring to, but moving slowly toward, compromise, great or not.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday declared that Clay — a former House speaker best known for the slavery compromises that delayed the Civil War — was "one of the greatest speakers of all time."

"All legislation is based on mutual consent," Reid said, as he declared that Democrats would go no further to appease Republicans while on the edge of the first government shutdown in 15 years. "Isn't this the time to do just that? Remember the word that is so important in what Henry Clay said is 'mutual concession.' "

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentuckian, like Clay, had another interpretation.

"He would have approved very much of that bill that the House will be sending over later today," said McConnell, a Republican.

The bill later passed by the House is not considered much of a compromise by Democrats. The measure that includes deep cuts funds the Defense Department for the rest of the year and other government operations for a week.

Clay's appearance in the debate reflects an effort by each side to marshal the authority of history, turning to a bygone heavyweight to add to their credibility.

Clay earned his nickname largely by crafting the Missouri Compromise, which aimed to placate both abolitionist and pro-slavery factions in Congress. History proved the compromise successful in holding together a country, though not permanently.

For that reason, Clay is more of a cautionary tale than a hero to some in Congress. His compromises only delayed the inevitable, and left their author seemingly compromised on principles.

"Henry Clay made no room for the true believers, for the abolitionists," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in his maiden speech on the Senate floor. "Today we have no issues that approach moral equivalency with the issue of slavery. Yet we do face a fiscal nightmare and potentially a debt crisis. Is the answer to compromise?"

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