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New Senators Are Great at Being Praised

THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / GLENN F. BUNTING

November 19, 1993|GLENN F. BUNTING

WASHINGTON — To hear their colleagues tell it, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are two of the most effective, articulate and influential legislators to grace the U.S. Senate.

The California Democrats are getting boffo reviews even though they have yet to finish the first year of their first legislative session.

In remarks delivered on the Senate floor last month, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) hailed Boxer "for her diligence, her hard work and her fine representation that she makes, not just for her state but for the whole of the U.S. Senate." He added that Boxer brings "a dimension of civility, as well as intelligence and ability to this body, for which we thank her."

Similarly, Feinstein was showered with superlatives Nov. 9 during floor debate on her legislation to ban semiautomatic assault weapons.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) said, "In my experience I have found the senator from California to be a very bright and insightful senator." Even a Republican opponent of the bill, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, gushed, "Frankly, I want to compliment the distinguished senator from California because she has presented this amendment in good faith, I am sure, and she has presented it in a very intelligent way. We admire that."

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Before the new California duo goes straight to the Congressional Hall of Fame, it should be noted that such hyperbole is routinely served like a hearty breakfast for the benefit of every member.

At times the chamber of the world's greatest deliberative body is filled with so much flattery that it seems as though senators are staging a parody of themselves. This is a place where everyone is "a good friend" and "a distinguished colleague."

Such rosy rhetoric helps make the Senate world go round. Without it, cooperation within the elite club of 100 might evaporate. Indeed, political politeness is ingrained in Senate tradition, dating back to 1789 when legislators first met and approved rules of debate.

"Half of those rules had to do with comity among the members because of a general concern that one of the great barriers to the legislative process would be antagonism," said Senate Historian Richard A. Baker.

The regulations forbid any senator from interrupting another senator in debate, referring to a colleague in the second person or "imputing to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming of a Senator."

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Today, newcomers are drilled on how to properly behave themselves.

"It is the way the Senate is," Boxer said. "It's just a given. It's a tradition of the Senate. There is sense of respect for one another."

Said Feinstein: "I think it is not a bad thing. I've seen (legislative) bodies disintegrate with recrimination and backbiting. Nothing here does that."

Still, both senators admit that some of their colleagues can overdo it.

Indeed, the mutual admiration machinery never stops churning. Compliments are passed around like daily vitamins in committee rooms, in news conferences, in private offices and in hallway interviews.

Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.) could not restrain himself at a recent news conference arranged by Boxer to introduce a government hot line for unemployed defense workers. "Sen. Boxer has stirred our souls," Pryor said.

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But even senators take on their colleagues once in a while.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), the president pro tempore, former majority leader and author of a two-volume tome on Senate history, stunned colleagues on Nov. 2 when he bluntly called for the resignation of Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), who is being investigated on allegations of sexual harassment.

Of course, the 75-year-old Byrd prefaced his demand ever so gently by calling Packwood "an effective and influential senator."

Exactly one week later, during debate on her assault-weapons ban, Feinstein rebuked Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Ida.) for belittling her knowledge of guns. Craig said: "So the gentle lady from California needs to become a little bit more familiar with firearms and their deadly characteristics."

Feinstein gave Craig a cold stare before interrupting him.

"I am quite familiar with firearms," she shot back. "I became mayor as a product of assassination. I found my assassinated colleague and put a finger through the bullet hole. I was trained in the shooting of a firearm when I had terrorist attacks with a bomb at my house.

"Senator, I know something about what firearms can do."

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