The Senate engaged in one of those debates...

LAST MONDAY

August 13, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

LAST MONDAY the Senate engaged in one of those debates that justify its boast as "the world's greatest deliberative body."

I watched most of it on C-Span II, from early afternoon to nearly 11 p.m. It was the Senate I remembered from the civil rights and Vietnam debates of the 1960s. I consider it the Senate at its best:

Many senators spoke. (Usually only a few do on any single topic.) Even more noteworthy, many senators listened. (Usually practically none do.) The typical Senate afternoon is not deliberative. It's not even debate. It's statements for the record.

But Monday, the air crackled with commitment and passion as senators such as John McCain of Arizona among others pleaded with colleagues not to stampede themselves into endorsing some dangerous open-ended policy of military engagement and responsibility in Bosnia -- and senators such as Barbara Mikulski demanded that the United States and the United Nations take all steps to end the atrocities there.

I have a feeling that this is the way it was in even more dramatic days than the 1960s. Daniel Webster and Henry Clay must have gone at it this way in the mid-19th century. (Dick Baker, the Senate historian, who knows what the Senate is like now and what it used to be like long, long ago, says the contemporary Senate often performs at the level of the legendary past.)

An interesting thing about Monday's Senate debate is that as far as newspapers are concerned it didn't happen. I read quite a few papers, including those national ones that claim to be papers of record on such news. None but The Sun even took notice of the debate -- and that only in a brief paragraph mentioning Mikulski's speech.

On Tuesday the Senate concluded its debate on Bosnia and passed a resolution expressing its desire that the U.S. and the U.N. take certain actions. One of the papers I read mentioned this near the bottom of a roundup story on Congress and Bosnia. Two didn't have a mumbling word on the debate and vote. The Sun had a story that described the resolution and reported the vote but did not get into the debate's substance. I understand the news judgment involved here, I think, but as an old habitue of the Senate press gallery, it makes me blue.

It is not often that floor debate actually helps senators make up their minds, as I believe this one did, at least in a few cases. It's too bad that more people don't get to read about such debates, including excerpts from the speeches.

C-Span II goes into 61 million cable homes, but I doubt if a significant fraction of the residents of those homes watched the Bosnian debate this week.

In fact I would bet that a larger percentage of the population read lengthy excerpts from the Senate speeches on the crisis leading up to the Civil War than read or watch Senate speeches on today's most critical issues.

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