Valentine's Day Doesn't Extend to Capitol Hill

It's Valentine's Day, and on Capitol Hill the honeymoon is over.

Last month's love-you-forever pledges, the good-vibes promises of bipartisanship and collegiality, have failed the test. In both chambers of Congress, Cupid missed.

"I guess the long and short of it is that not much has changed," said Jonathan Allen, reporter for Congressional Quarterly's Inside Congress, referring to the fierce partisanship of the last decade, particularly in the House.

"There was a brief honeymoon period right at the beginning of the Congress," Allen said, but it may have been a shorter than a bloom on a rose. "Things are still pretty partisan."

This is not what the freshman class of 2007 was hoping for just six weeks ago at its swearing-in ceremony. Heavily dominated by Democrats — 41 to 13 Republicans — in the new Democratic-controlled Congress, the House rookies set out to make nice with their colleagues across the aisle. Many are convinced it can still happen.

"I think people are more concerned about getting the job done and moving the country forward than in years past," said Rep. Ron Klein, Democratic freshman from Florida, who ousted 26-year Republican incumbent Clay Shaw in the November election.

His own experience as a new member of both the House Foreign Affairs and Financial Services committees has been a positive sign that relations are warming, said Klein, noting that the Democratic chairmen and ranking Republican members have made it a point to encourage respect and cooperation between both sides.

"We're seeing Republicans joining with Democrats and Democrats joining with Republicans and doing the work of Congress, and that's exactly what the public wants," he said.

"The bills we have passed, especially during the first 100 hours, made headlines because of the votes received across party lines," said Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, who was re-elected after being ousted two years ago.

"The feeling of bipartisanship rings truer now compared to my previous terms in Congress, and it's evident in the votes," he added.

But Republicans are not feeling the love. They say revenge, not olive branches, motivated those first votes in the 110th Congress. They complain that pushing through legislation like the minimum wage measure, an omnibus spending bill and a partial voting right for delegates representing the U.S territories and District of Columbia without full debate reflects a reneging on the Democrats' promise to pursue civility and openness in the process.

Rep. David Davis, Republican freshman from Tennessee, blames the Democratic leadership for steering things in the wrong direction so quickly.

"If you've got a leadership that is not letting other bills go out on the floor or debates in committee, the reality is it's just not good policy. [Bipartisanship] is not happening," he said in an interview. "I think there is frustration, not among Republicans on the Hill, but with the American people. [Democrats] promised this was going to be open government, with ethics and would work smoothly."

Rep. Adrian Smith, Republican freshman from Nebraska, said he "has very good relations with a number of freshman Democrats," but wants to know when the good vibes are coming from the other party's leadership.

"I'm new around here, but I have yet to see a real effort by the majority to reach out," he said. "I'm willing to reach out…regardless of what the majority does. Now is not the time to whine, it's a time to take action."

Reporter Allen noted that comments like these reflect the complete switch in party rhetoric: last year at this time, Democrats were the ones who felt spurned and complained that the GOP leadership railroaded legislation, stifled debate and commandeered the schedule at their pleasure. Now Republicans appear to be the wallflowers at the dance.

"The two sides have very much switched roles," he said.

Republicans in the House are hardly accepting their new role passively. Partly in retribution for the Democrats using last year's congressional pay raises to attack Republicans in the 2006 elections, in January GOP members effectively thwarted the cost of living increases for House members for this fiscal year, freezing the annual salary at $162,000.

More recently, Republicans pounced on reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had requested military aircraft to travel back and forth from the West coast. Though dismissing the accounts as mischaracterizations — Pelosi was advised by the House Sergeant at Arms to get a plane big enough to fly non-stop from Washington to her district in California — Republicans did not hold back from questioning her ethics on the issue.

But not everyone is convinced that, like chivalry, bipartisanship is lost on this Congress forever. Freshmen are the biggest optimists, and they generally find ways to bond with each other — at least when they are off the House floor.

"I think there had been attempts made to be more collegial — especially among the freshmen," said Jeff Giertz, spokesman for first-year Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. "For example, when (Braley) goes to the House gym, he always makes a point to make conversation with whoever is there, Republican or Democrat. He's gotten a sense of how much they have in common. They are more similar than different."

Giertz also pointed out that despite ideological differences about the war in Iraq, for example, the Republican and Democratic representatives of Iowa recently signed a letter to Secretary of Defense Gates questioning why family and media knew about the extended deployment of the 133rd National Guard Battalion before the soldiers, who are in Iraq.

"The ideological differences were put aside to do the one thing that everyone could agree on," he said.

Allen said while freshmen tend to bond over political lines, "over time I think they become more partisan as they become more part of Washington atmosphere." He suggested that something in the air on Capitol Hill this Valentine's Day is not L-O-V-E.

"Overall in the House it's a very politically divided place," said Allen. "As it stands, I don't think you'll see an 180 degree reversal on that."