WASHINGTON – If the last few weeks on Capitol Hill are any indication, the only value shared by Democrats and Republicans is a mutual desire to kick the other side in the political pants.
The sniping has gotten so bad that two members of the House, Democratic Rep. Steve Israel (search) of New York, and Republican Rep. Tim Johnson (search) of Illinois, formerly announced a bipartisan "Center Aisle Caucus" on Wednesday to try and bring some civility back to the halls of Congress.
"We were sent to Washington to fight for our constituents first, who are undermined when the debate in this town seems more appropriate in an out-of-control elementary school auditorium than in the United States House of Representatives," said Israel.
In the Senate, Democrats have accused the Republican National Committee (search) of engaging in the "politics of personal destruction" by circulating a 13-page memo of opposition research against new Minority Leader Harry Reid (search), D-Nev.
The memo was sent Feb. 7 to journalists, Capitol Hill staff and RNC members. It reviews Reid's votes and positions on a number of issues, accusing him of flip-flopping on private accounts for Social Security and abortion, obstructing judicial nominees, cutting defense spending, supporting extreme environmental views, encouraging political mudslinging and being a perennial tax-hiker.
The memo also takes umbrage with Reid's living quarters in Washington, a $750,000 condo at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The RNC says this indicates a man "out of touch with mainstream America."
Democrats immediately fired back, calling it "the worst kind of innuendos and name-calling," and charging that it's President Bush's responsibility to rein in his party's tactics if he is truly serious about being a "uniter."
"I've heard the president say, ‘Don't hold me responsible … it's just the RNC,'" said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in a press conference with other senators on the subject Feb. 10. "But … the RNC works for the president."
The White House has denied responsibility for the memo, and at a recent intimate dinner at the White House, Bush reportedly took Reid aside and assured him he had nothing to do with the attacks.
Republicans say Democrats have been equally harsh about high-profile GOPers, particularly House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, a lightning rod for Democrats who say he has manipulated everything from Texas redistricting to the Washington lobbying establishment with his "right wing" agenda.
"The Democrats in the House, led by (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi, have launched the nastiest barrage of personal attacks against leader DeLay that we've seen in a long time," said DeLay spokesman Dan Allen, who said Democrats have already set themselves up "as people who don't want to come to the table or negotiate."
Repeating a phrase often used by DeLay, Allen called the Democrats "the party of ‘no'" and said Reid drew the line in the sand when he suggested on the day of Bush's State of the Union (search) speech that he had enough votes to kill Bush's plan for Social Security reform (search), which includes a proposal for personal investment accounts that the majority of Democrats vociferously oppose.
"That's not quite fair," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. "Sen. Reid has said repeatedly that he is willing to sit down with the president to work on a bipartisan-based bill. Plus, the concerns that Harry Reid have are the same that many Republicans have stated as well."
Republicans say they don't buy it. "It must be a page from the Democratic playbook — the victimization of Democrats," said Greg Crist, spokesman for House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio. Crist said his previous boss, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, was a weekly target of Democratic attack memos.
Capitol Hill staffers and Washington political experts say this scene isn't new. Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was a big target of GOP attacks, and further back, Democrats vilified Newt Gingrich when he became speaker of the House in 1995.
"It's fairly common to have a boogeyman on the other side," said John Fortier, political expert with the American Enterprise Institute (search), who nonetheless noted that the tone has gotten nastier in the last 20 years.
"I could point to examples on both sides of the demonization of leaders, and it has unfortunately become very commonplace," he said.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Jano Cabrera agreed, but he was unapologetic and said the Democrats won't be cowed. He said he recognized that the DNC has been waging its own offensive, releasing a memo attacking Karl Rove (search), who had just been named deputy chief of staff at the White House, the same day the RNC launched the Reid assault.
He suggested that the warlike mentality of the 2004 campaign never stopped. "The tactics of the RNC and the DNC in the election campaign have spilled over into the fight for Social Security," he said.
Bill Frenzel, a former Republican member of the House representing Minnesota from 1971 to 1991, said skulduggery has always existed on Capitol Hill, but the slim margins in the House and Senate over the last 10 years have made the atmosphere more toxic.
"In general, the environment is one in which the wells are all poisoned," he said. "As long as Congress remains very close to balance with every election, threatening either a change or narrow maintenance of the majority, I think we are going to remain in this state of high anxiety and in a state of, not a cold, but a warm, war."
Fortier said that despite promises by each party to work with the other, it doesn't look like a good year for bipartisanship, particularly with such hotbed issues as Social Security, tax reform and Bush's judicial nominations on the horizon.
"I think there are some genuine, good-faith attempts to bridge those gaps," he said, "but I guess I don't see a lot of room on the agenda ahead for a lot of bipartisanship."