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Last Week's Hearst-New York Times Column

^THE SENATE IS WHERE PROGRESS SINKS IN QUICKSAND@<

^(For use by New York Times News Service clients)@<

^By BOB FRANKEN@=

^C.2011 Hearst Newspapers@=

WASHINGTON _ It was nice to see that House members could play nice and have their debate over health care repeal without gang warfare. Still, are the Democrats and Republicans really ready to sit next to each other during an entire State-of-the Union speech next Tuesday?

In a letter to colleagues, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., wrote: ``Beyond custom, there is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, separated by party, instead of being seen united as a country.’’

That's all well and good but is it pushing our luck to put these momentarily subdued warriors within physical reach when they jam into the crowded House chamber to listen to President Obama?

What happens when one partisan leaps up to cheer, while the other one sits there like a bump on a log? In other words, do we risk a hostility relapse?

Besides, we can take this pretend politeness too far. Look no further than the exaggerated chivalry in the Senate. It's in the rules: ``No senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.’’
It's called ``comity’’ and it's transparently contrived.


The next time you're having an insomnia problem, don't pop an Ambien or Lunesta. Instead switch your TV to Comity Central, otherwise known the C-SPAN feed of what traditionally is called the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.” That's ``deliberative’’ as in stupefyingly glacial. Guaranteed, you'll be unconscious in no time. Meanwhile, on the screen, the members will be still referring to their arch enemies as ``my friends.’’


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They illustrate the problem of going overboard with this civility thing: All too often, the Senate is where progress sinks in quicksand. The ostentatious gentility of the place becomes a not-so-gentle weapon used to camouflage how an individual member protects parochial interests and campaign contributors instead of furthering the greater good.

There's a lot of greater good that needs to be furthered. We need for our leaders to be forthright about confronting the dangers that threaten our country. At some point, for instance, they're going to have to make really difficult decisions about rescuing the nation from fiscal disaster. There is still a lot of unfinished squabbling ahead over the proper amount of regulation to protect against the unscrupulous without placing undue burdens on those who are honest.

It can be done without violent rhetoric and vacuous sloganeering, but our elected officials need to be direct with one another for all of us to see, as they debate the pros and cons of specific severe budget cuts and tax increases.

There are huge differences that can't be glossed over. Whether it's in the congressional forum or media, we need the arguments to be blunt but coherent. If we're going to soften the hard feelings we must be open about them. Then and only then would our public officials be able to lead by cobbling together intelligent compromises.

Let's face it: Skepticism abounds. A CNN-Opinion Research poll released Monday, a little more than a week after the Tucson massacre showed that a full 70 per cent of the respondents believe the new less-bellicose tone will last ``...for a few weeks or months but that change will not last very long.’’

The Senate sleep remedy, like the pills, also has side effects: potential depression, certain boredom. If they last more than four hours, don't call your doctor. Instead, call your elected official, and demand they act instead of bluster.

Our nation is suffering a lot of illnesses. To recover our health there will need to be tough remedies and painful concessions by all sides. Sitting together will have to become a lot more than just symbolism. We'll really need to start standing together.

^--@<

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