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November 29, 2012

MARK BENNETT: An unbudging Congress standing on opposing sides accomplishes little

Sausage patties, hugging a scoop of scrambled eggs and a couple slices of toast on a plate, and chased with nearby steaming black coffee.

I’m awake just writing those words.

Sausage isn’t granola, though. Only a veteran butcher could admire the skillful process of sausage grinding. It’s messy. The ingredients, individually, would turn most stomachs. But once on the table, the dish serves many and with great variety, from patties to links, kielbasa, Polish, brats and salami.

A Congress full of vegetarians and prime-rib snobs accomplishes little. Its members must learn to handle the daily grind of lawmaking, especially when the greater good of the nation is at stake.

That reality underscores the new Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln.” Without compromise and cajoling — through means sometimes as unsavory as job offers to lame-duck congressmen to entice their votes — the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending the heinous practice of slavery, would not have happened as it did in 1865. Character and courage have rightly earned Abraham Lincoln a spot on Mount Rushmore and in human hearts worldwide, but the movie also reveals him as a political genius. The thought of Lincoln revisiting an attempt to abolish slavery through a constitutional amendment — just eight months after a similar effort failed, with the same 38th Congress, including 64 rival Democrats ousted in the same 1864 election that gave Abe a second term — confounded the president’s closest advisers.

Yet, he succeeded. On Jan. 31, 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment. Lincoln managed to get the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution — a step Congress had not taken in 60 years. “Lincoln” casts the revered president with human frailties, frustrated and exhausted by the staggering bloodshed and division that would eventually claim his life, too. His determination transcended those weaknesses, though.

The most stirring moment in the film occurs when Lincoln, played remarkably by English actor Daniel Day Lewis, loses his tolerance for the bickering, unyielding politicians whose intransigence threatens the amendment’s passage. In an explosive response to accusations of being dictatorial, the president bellows, “I’m clothed in immense power. You must get this done.”

Thank goodness, they heeded his demand.

Thus, somehow, some way, 119 members of Congress backed the amendment, with 56 saying nay, beating the two-thirds threshold. Ten Democrats voted with every House Republican, Lincoln’s party. By being absent, another eight Democrats — including Daniel W. Voorhees of Indiana, who according to historical accounts opposed the 13th Amendment — essentially allowed it to pass. The supporting votes were not all cast for noble reasons of racial equality, human rights, basic decency and the preservation of the union. Nonetheless, Lincoln and the amendment’s longtime advocates focused on getting their “yea” votes.

As a result, America took its most profound step toward a truer democracy, which remains a work in progress.

Now, 148 years later, the 112th Congress is struggling to address an issue that looks like a molehill compared with the mountainous task of ending slavery at the finish of a war that claimed more than a half-million American lives on U.S. soil.

A fiscal “cliff.”

Really.

Automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts to the military and other federal services loom as a penalty for Congress’ intransigent attitude. Almost certainly, another recession would ensue. On one side, with arms folded, stand the Republicans, clinging to a tax pledge created by a Washington lobbyist named Grover Norquist, refusing to budge on a tax increase for the wealthiest Americans. On the other side stand Democrats, irked by their opponents’ calls for reduced government entitlement programs. Both sides are eyeballing every gesture of compromise and commitment by President Obama.

In the middle, 311 million Americans wonder if the lawmakers will grind up their rigid differences, and serve the greater good.

They must get this done.

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