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Unlikely relationships that force Senate action

/ Source: NBC News

It was one of the most vicious and divisive moments in the history of American politics. And it ended with a vote of 100-0 in the United States Senate.

The year was 1999 and, with spectacular partisan fireworks, the House of Representatives had just approved articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton. Now, it was the Senate’s turn to hold the trial.

At center stage were two ideological opposites who would be the ones to smother the bitterness stoked in the House.

In January of 1999, Republican and Democratic Senate leaders pleaded with members that their first action on the impeachment proceedings — to establish the length and initial structure for the trial — be a bipartisan one.

Days of prickly closed-door talks had left negotiations on the verge of collapse. Senators were hastily summoned to a members-only meeting for one final pass at comity.

“We wanted to have a fair process. And yet partisan bickering is what it [was],” recalled Republican Sen. Sam Brownback.

Democrats labeled the Republican-led effort a “witch-hunt.” The GOP shrugged off their outrage, saying Clinton deserved every ounce of trouble he'd received.

It looked like a stalemate. But during the final negotiations, two of the most respected members of the Senate rose to address their colleagues.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, the “liberal lion” of the Senate, boomed out an entreaty. “We’ve got to conduct this fairly for the country,” Brownback recalled Kennedy declaring.

Then, an unlikely voice chimed in. “Senator Kennedy is right,” said Sen. Phil Gramm, a conservative Republican who'd famously clashed with the Massachusetts lawmaker on policy matters. “We can do this.”

Leaders quickly tasked the two to come up with a process the chamber could agree on. Later that same day, the Senate approved it unanimously.

Brownback says personal relationships across the aisle dramatically impact how the Senate works. He and other retiring senators pointed to impeachment negotiations as a classic — and little reported — example of those powerful connections.

“There was enough of a relationship between Phil and Ted — completely different perspectives, pretty similar styles — that they could do that,” Brownback said. “And there was enough trusting in the relationships there of other members towards the two of them that they could negotiate that.”

Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh watched it all unfold. “You couldn't have more polar opposites in terms of ideological points of view. But they knew the country was in a tough spot and it had to be worked out, so they did,” he said.

The actual impeachment vote ultimately broke on predictably partisan lines, noted Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., but the trial’s relatively smooth conduct was a testament to the trust shared between those with sharply differing ideological differences.

“It was such a high-visibility political issue,” Gregg said. “But in reality it was a very personal exercise within the Senate. Very intense — but much more personal than people could see.”

Unlikely friendships
When partisanship blankets Washington and gridlock reigns, senators say personal relationships across the aisle are a fundamental element of how the chamber functions.

The late Sen. Kennedy was named often by the Republicans as someone they liked to work with on legislation.

No one knew Kennedy better and learned more from him about the power of personal relationships than Sen. Chris Dodd. He served with Kennedy for 30 years, and the two were as close as brothers. When Republicans held the majority, Kennedy's uncanny ability to charm GOP senators into bipartisan deals flummoxed Republican leaders, Dodd said.

“There’s nothing magical about it. He’d get to know you, was genuinely interested in you, and wanted to know what you cared about and found out what it was,” Dodd said. “How do you turn down a guy who wants to work on something you care about?”

Dodd, the son of three-term Sen. Thomas Dodd, fondly recalls his father bringing other senators to their Washington home for dinner and drinks. The weaving of the personal with the senatorial provided a mild inoculation of sorts from personal attacks.

“As long as you're at arm’s length you can scream at each other,” he observed, “but if your kids are friends, your wives spending time [together] … it’s a little harder to do that.”

But when relationships between members go bad, so can the work in Congress.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, recalled another senator's slight of a House committee chairman that once snarled the passage of a piece of legislation. The measure, which he did not specify, was stalled until Bennett called the House chairman and apologized on behalf of his Senate colleague. The chairman accepted. A year later, it passed.

“There were not stories written about it, but it was one of the most important things I did” for Utah, Bennett said.

Many of the retiring senators said that it’s become more difficult to build and maintain interpersonal relationships in the modern era.

“The relationships aren’t built like they used to be when people moved to Washington, stayed here, [and] socialized,” said Brownback. “And that has an impact on the system working or not working.”

A good portion of the members fly home every weekend — often leaving Thursday night and returning to Washington Monday afternoon — limiting opportunities for friendly socialization.

But strong bipartisan relationships still exist in the Senate, the members argue. Shared interests, family connections, and similar backgrounds bring these lawmakers together in unique and lasting ways.

Bennett, a conservative Republican from a rural state, is very close to former Democratic senator — now vice president — Joe Biden. Their relationship wasn’t born from their work together — the two only recently overlapped in the Senate — but rather stems from the relationship Biden developed with Bennett’s father, former Sen. Wallace Bennett.

A few weeks after Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident in Delaware. Despondent, Biden was still persuaded to come to Washington. Wallace Bennett served as “an uncle figure” to the young lawmaker.

“Joe knew my father well, and [our friendship] started, I think, because Joe told me how close he felt to my father when Joe was a brand new senator and my father was one of the old bulls,” the younger Bennett recalled.

Republican Jim Bunning, a GOP lawmaker known as a conservative curmudgeon, said he “gets along the best” with Democrat Jay Rockefeller. From the neighboring states of Kentucky and West Virginia, respectively, they have similar local interests, especially coal mining.

But it's America's pastime that joins the unlikely pair. Bunning is a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher and Rockefeller is a rabid Atlanta Braves fan.

“Socially and financially we’re on opposite pages, but we have a close friendship,” Bunning said. “And it’s good, because otherwise I wouldn’t have that kind of a relationship with him.”

Many of the alliances are formed out of necessity, on the various Senate committees. Members are often placed on panels because of their expertise or interest in the subject matter.

It’s there, the senators say, where most of the Senate’s bipartisan work is done.

“It does happen at the committee level,” said Republican Sen. Kit Bond. “But at the [Senate’s] leadership level, it’s just a firefight.”

But Sen. Dodd worries that the deeper friendships, built outside the Capitol, are few and far between. “It’s the stripping of the socialization of the institution which is causing much of the problem [in the Senate] as anything else,” he says. “It doesn’t happen intentionally, but it just happens the way it is.”'s Carrie Dann contributed to this story.