The President versus the Senate: A struggle steeped in history


    President Obama has played over 180 rounds of golf since he came to the White House. But only once has he asked a Democratic member of the United States Senate to join him on the links.

    That would be Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who lost in last week’s mid-term elections. So did Democratic candidates in six other states where the party holds a seat, allowing the GOP to seize control of the Senate for the first time since 2006.

    So what will that mean for Obama’s relationship with the Senate?  Probably very little. And that’s because he didn’t have much of one to begin with.

    Neither did most of our prior presidents, even when the Senate was in their own party’s hands. Tension between the chief executive and the upper body of Congress is baked into our national DNA. And elections don’t seem to affect it very much, if at all.

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    Before our first president took office, the Senate voted to bestow upon George Washington the title of “His Majesty, the President of the United States of America, and the Protector of the Same.” But Washington’s relationship with the Senate cooled just a few months later, when he visited the body to request its approval of a commission to negotiate land treaties with Native Americans.

    Senators asked for time to deliberate the proposal, but Washington wanted their consent on the spot. He departed in a huff, leaving bad feelings on both sides. “I cannot be mistaken,” one senator wrote in his journal. “The President wishes to tread on the necks of the Senate.”

    The new Constitution gave the Senate power to approve federal appointments, not just treaties. When the Senate rejected his nominee for a naval post in Georgia, Washington personally went to the body to ask why. One senator replied that its deliberations were secret, and they were none of the president’s business anyhow. After that, the Father of our Country resolved never to visit its Senate again.Similar acrimony arose between 19th-century presidents and the Senate, even when the president (like our current chief executive) had served in the body himself. After nine-year Senate veteran John Tyler became our first unelected president, replacing the deceased William Henry Harrison, one senator proposed that Tyler be addressed as “The Vice President, on whom, by the death of the late President, the powers and duties of the office of President have devolved.” The Senate went on to reject four of Tyler’s cabinet nominees and four of his appointments to the Supreme Court.

    Nor did it matter that Tyler’s own party, the Whigs, controlled the Senate. Two decades later, as the Civil War raged, not a single member of the GOP-dominated Senate supported Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election bid. Lincoln was locked in a battle over post-war Reconstruction with his fellow Republicans, who secretly rejoiced when he was murdered. “By the gods,” one GOP senator exclaimed, “there will be no trouble now in running the government!”

    But there was, of course, into the next century and beyond. Upon ascending to the White House in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt clashed with his GOP Senate colleagues over his plans for banking regulation, the construction of the Panama Canal, and more. Privately, Roosevelt called one Republican senator “a well-meaning, pin-headed, anarchistic crank, of hirsute and slab-sided aspect.” As one of Roosevelt’s friends wrote, the president had “as much respect for the Senate as a dog has for a marriage license.”

    And the Senate returned the favor, of course. Woodrow Wilson would feel its full sting after World War I, when the Senate rejected his plea to join the League of Nations. “The senators of the United States have no use for their heads,” a bitter Wilson declared, “except to serve as a knot to keep their bodies from unraveling.”

    And so it went, from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tangle with the Senate over his court-packing bill through Richard Nixon’s battle over White House tapes and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. During FDR’s failed bid to add justices to the Supreme Court, one of his Democratic foes in the Senate said the president was his own worst enemy. “Not as long as I am alive,” another Democratic senator quipped.

    Unlike FDR, President Obama will now have to deal with a GOP-led Senate. But it’s hard to imagine that his relationship with the body could get any chillier than it was when his party controlled it. Twelve Democratic senators were invited to a reception at the White House last St. Patrick’s Day, and exactly one showed up.

    From the very start, the Senate has tried to show up the president–and vice versa. And that’s unlikely to change in the future, no matter who wins at the polls.

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