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A Did-Something Congress

By David Broder

WASHINGTON -- The voters' message is getting through, not only in settling the fights for the Republican and Democratic nominations but in changing the mind-set of Washington.

The clearest evidence of the change is what happened last week on the economic stimulus bill. A week ahead of their self-imposed deadline, the House and Senate, by overwhelming votes, sent to President Bush almost exactly the kind of relief measure he had sought for the staggering economy.

It was a dramatic reversal of the gridlock that had characterized executive-congressional relations throughout 2007, and it reflects the recognition by both Republicans and Democrats of the public disenchantment with official Washington that has been one of the dominant themes of the 2008 presidential campaign.

As one example of the turnabout that has taken place, consider the comments of House Minority Leader John Boehner just before the 380-34 vote to approve Senate amendments and send the bill to the president.

"Over the course of the last year," the Ohio Republican said, "the speaker (Nancy Pelosi) and I didn't have a policy conversation. I can tell you that we have had about 25 over the last several weeks. And for the health of our institution, I think it is good to come together and find common ground where we can. And I am glad that we were able to find common ground on this economic growth package, and I am hopeful that we will continue to try to find places where we can work together to solve problems that the American people expect us to solve."

Pelosi, for her part, was equally effusive, recalling that "it was only about two and a half weeks ago" that she was on the phone with Bush, offering to push an accelerated timetable in response to his proposal for a $150 billion package of anti-recession measures.

Bypassing the usual committee process, she and Boehner negotiated the legislation with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and quickly got it passed on the floor. The Senate Finance Committee wrote its own version and, when that failed by one vote to win the needed 60 for passage, Majority Leader Harry Reid quickly accepted the suggestion of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that the most vital parts of the revised plan be added to the House bill by amendment. That was done 91-6.

Time will tell whether the stimulus package -- blessed by leading economists of both parties -- will be timely and substantial enough to ward off a full-scale recession. But as a symbol of Washington's capacity to respond to a real threat and to satisfy the public demand for action, it is impressive and heartening.

Toward the end of the debate, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 man in the Republican leadership, said, "There is one message we hear consistently from the people we represent in this country. It is: They would like for us to change the way we do business in Washington, D.C.

"They would like for us to come and focus our attention on big problems that affect everyday Americans -- whether it is helping each American have health care insurance, whether it is keeping our jobs from going overseas, whether it is the $3 price of gasoline -- and work together in a principled way to solve it.

"They do not mind our having big debates on big issues, about big principles such as liberty versus security or terrorism. What they do not like is the 'playpen' politics, when we bring out the charts and hire the campaign strategists and degenerate into what ought to be in a kindergarten or in a political campaign."\

Alexander had it exactly right. And so did Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who helped frame the housing part of the stimulus package. He noted that because of the short-term urgency of the recession threat, "we are able to come together in a bipartisan way.

"And," he said, "partisanship is, I believe, a much unfairly maligned concept. Partisanship is essential to a healthy democracy. There has never been a self-governing polity in the history of the world, I believe, of any size where political parties did not emerge, because large numbers of people trying to govern themselves need an organizing principle other than the authority of the leadership."

Alexander and Frank are two of a growing number of Washington partisans who recognize and seize the opportunities for agreement and action. That augurs well, not just for the rest of this year but for the new administration and Congress that will arrive in 2009.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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