updated 3/5/2004 12:32:40 PM ET 2004-03-05T17:32:40

How rude.

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In the Senate, all the members are distinguished, if not downright honorable, and all of their states are “great.” By reputation it’s a place of decorum, collegiality and partisanship without poison.

But Republican big guns are bringing out GOP senators to attack their Democratic colleague running for president. John Kerry, distinguished junior senator from the great state of Massachusetts, is taking it on the chin from the frat pack.

Recently GOP Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia have digressed from the Senate etiquette outlined ages ago by Thomas Jefferson to attack Kerry on multiple fronts. “History has shown his vision to be wrong,” Coleman said of Kerry.

Political scientist Burdett Loomis of the University of Kansas said the Senate has never been as cordial as its idealized reputation but there’s no question manners have gone downhill in recent years, particularly at election time.

“These people are acting not as senators first and foremost, they are acting as agents of the president for the presidential campaign,” he said. “This is one more step in the decline of civility.”

But retired GOP Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, for one, says to heck with the stodgy stereotype of the Senate as clubby, safeguarded by traditions rife with mannerliness.

“It ain’t beanbag,” he said.

Tit for tat
And when Democrats go after President Bush with such vigor, they have to expect to get a dose of it back.

“It doesn’t seem to be anything more brutal than what they’re doing to George Bush,” he said. “You can’t have the sweetness and light on one side, while stoking the crematorium on the other side.”

Senate courtesies may have as much to do with political realities as with tradition. Because loose Senate rules let the minority hold things up, there is a greater need for accommodation and camaraderie in the Senate than in the House, where the majority can more easily impose its will.

“Senators are loathe to burn their bridges,” said Donald Ritchie, associate Senate historian. He said the only way to do business is to keep tempers in check.

Still, election-year politics can turn the chamber into a boxing ring.

“The partisan overlay in the Senate is very, very powerful,” Loomis said. “Partisanship in the end is trumping congeniality.”

Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College near Los Angeles, said Republicans may be retaliating against Democrats who made Bob Dole’s life difficult in 1996 before he left as Senate majority leader to campaign full-time as GOP presidential candidate.

“This is sort of an element of payback by Republicans,” he said. Pitney explained that Democrats kept forcing votes to make Dole look bad, including a raise in the minimum wage that Dole finally endorsed, reluctantly.

Then they all joined in a warm and fuzzy farewell.

Recruitment drive
This time, the GOP has recruited some senators to vocalize anti-Kerry sentiment.

“His vision was wrong when he voted against the first Gulf War,” Coleman told reporters in a conference call arranged by the Bush-Cheney campaign. “If we had followed his vision, Saddam would still be in Kuwait, probably with nuclear weapons capability.”

In a previous conference call, Chambliss blasted what he said was Kerry’s “32-year history of voting to cut defense programs.”

Arizona Sen. John McCain was enlisted to take on Kerry and Democratic rival Wesley Clark during the New Hampshire primary, but he didn’t seem to have his heart in it.

He delicately raised questions about Kerry touting his Vietnam War record. But he quickly made nice, saying he wasn’t criticizing Kerry, his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran.

Ritchie said senators still follow Jefferson’s procedural manual, written when he was vice president and presiding over the Senate. The upshot: No senator is to insult another senator in debate, or insult a senator’s state.

Even so, passions flare up on occasion, Ritchie said.

South Carolina Democratic Sens. Benjamin Tillman and John McLaurin got into a fist fight in 1902 on the Senate floor. While McLaurin was away from the Senate chamber, Tillman charged that his colleague had changed his position on a pending treaty in return for special favors. McLaurin stormed into the chamber and said the allegation was a “lie.” Tillman than socked McLaurin squarely in the jaw.

And in 1850, Mississippi Sen. Henry Foote pulled a pistol out in self-defense during a dispute with Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton over slavery.

“There are moments when tempers erupted and got the best of them,” Ritchie said.

As for Simpson, his advice seems to cover the sweep of history.

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