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Signs of a fever breaking in politics

WASHINGTON — Liz Cheney’s Senate candidacy gives me hope.

I’m not hopeful because I’d like the former vice president’s daughter to become a senator, though my job would surely be more entertaining if she were to dislodge the unexciting incumbent, Sen. Mike Enzi, in Wyoming’s Republican primary.

What fills me with hope is the instant denunciation of her run — by conservative Republicans.

Sen. John Barrasso, like Enzi a Cowboy State conservative, called Cheney’s bid “the wrong race at the wrong time.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican who was an early member of the House Tea Party Caucus, called Cheney a “shiny new pony” and said Enzi “has done nothing to merit a primary challenge.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who surfed the tea party wave to power in 2010 and now runs the Senate Republicans’ 2014 campaign, said “our support will be there for Mike.”

Even Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a tea party icon, mocked the recently transplanted Cheney by saying he “wondered if she was running in her home state of Virginia.”

The race won’t be about ideology (Enzi is as conservative as they come) but about temperament: Enzi is agreeable, and Cheney is, well, not. The opposition to her candidacy, particularly among Senate conservatives, is therefore an encouraging sign that the tea Party fever may be breaking — and the Senate may be recovering from its paralysis.

The opposition to Cheney is one of several recent indications:

On Tuesday, senators pulled back from a showdown over the filibuster, as Republicans agreed to approve several of President Obama’s executive-branch nominees in exchange for a Democratic promise to preserve minority rights in the chamber. The confrontation shouldn’t have been necessary, and the fix is limited and temporary. But the deal, brokered by Sen. John McCain in a reprise of his old role of dealmaker, shows that senators can pull back from the partisan brink in a time of (self-inflicted) crisis.

On Wednesday, a group claiming four Democratic and four Republican senators announced that they had reached agreement on legislation for a press shield law protecting confidential sources. “It’s another good gang that we’ve come up with,” remarked Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. While the senators were announcing this bipartisan accord in the Senate TV studio, the House, by contrast, was kicking off yet another partisan debate on Obamacare, in which the policy was branded “socialist” and the president was accused of having “contempt for the Constitution.”

On Thursday, a different bipartisan group of senators announced that they had finalized an agreement on student loan legislation, offering an end to the standoff between the White House and House Republicans that had caused a sharp increase in loan rates.

As a result of these and other developments, the Senate is in the paradoxical position of being more orderly and governable than the House. Traditionally, the House, which gives the minority party little power, is the more efficient, and the Senate, which relies on unanimous consent and protects minority rights, is where legislation goes to die.

But lately, as The Associated Press’ Chuck Babington noted last week, “the Senate makes legislating look almost easy compared to the House.” That’s because Republican House leaders have been trying to pass legislation without Democratic votes. This, in turn, gives conservatives power to kill just about everything.

The Senate, for example, passed the farm bill with a two-thirds majority. But a similar bill at first failed in the House and passed only after Republican leaders took the extraordinary step of removing the food-stamp program in their bill. The immigration legislation, likewise, cleared the Senate, 68-32, but is stuck in the House because of conservatives’ objections.

It would be too wishful to think the Senate has overcome its dysfunction. That won’t happen as long as the perpetually pugnacious Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell remain majority and minority leaders. Nor will it happen as long as Republican senators are afraid of primary challenges if they cross hotheaded colleagues such as Ted Cruz of Texas.

But the defense of Enzi suggests recovery is possible. Cheney, in her announcement speech, didn’t go after the incumbent on substance. Rather, she decided to make issues of Enzi’s age (69 to her 46) and his non-confrontational style. “I believe it is necessary for a new generation of leaders to step up to the plate,” she said, also arguing that “we can no longer afford simply to go along to get along.”

If conservatives are ready to push back against Cheney’s divisiveness, we may not be so far gone, after all.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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