WASHINGTON — Once upon a time in Congress, compromise between Republicans and Democrats was the norm. And a witty GOP senator named Bob Dole was one of the best practitioners of the art, preferably on a West-facing balcony of the Capitol where he could get sun on his face while lawmaking. He succeeded an affable storyteller and able dealmaker named Howard Baker, who likened running the Senate to herding cats.
Nearly 16 years after Dole left the Senate to run for president, the balcony is named for him, and the Senate is even more unruly than Baker described. The pair was feted in Washington for their combined century of service and for practicing a thing called bipartisanship that seems lost, for now.
"All I know is I don't have to make a speech," Dole, 88, said in a telephone interview before Wednesday's festivities. He said he's feeling a bit better lately but still suffers from chronic back pain.
Plenty of others did, including the current crop of partisan warriors who insisted that under their leadership, the polarized Senate has been working as it always has and that they're doing the best they can. But others in the Bipartisan Policy Center, which Dole and Baker helped found, suggested that the two former leaders encouraged discussion instead of the parliamentary gamesmanship that rules the chamber now.
"I think the Senate operated more effectively then than it does today," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of the hosts of the tribute. "But I don't think it would make much to change it today. It would take a change of behavior rather than a change of rules."
The Bipartisan Policy Center's mission statement says it is dedicated to "great moments in compromise by encouraging civil, respectable political discourse between the political parties."
That sounds quaint after more than a year of divided government mired in standoffs over the nation's troubled economy and, lately, a selection of long-settled social issues like access to contraception and the Violence Against Women Act. So polarized is Congress in the 2012 election year that centrists like Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe and Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson are fleeing.
In fact, Dole and Baker, both former presidential candidates and veterans of World War II, were at the center of such historic moments of bipartisanship. They could each be conciliators and fierce partisans.
Baker, 86, served in the Senate from 1967 to 1985 and was the senior Republican on the congressional panel investigating Watergate. He is famous for asking the question of his fellow Republicans: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
His calm demeanor was considered key to passage of the 1978 Panama Canal Treaty, which called for the gradual transfer of the canal to Panama. He served as Senate majority leader from 1981 to 1985. Today, Baker is married to former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a Kansas Republican who was also well-known for conciliation and compromise.
Equally steady and acerbic, Dole was Baker's successor as leader of the Senate Republicans. He developed a reputation in the Senate of valuing thoughtful discussion over incivility in lawmaking and, wounded in World War II, became a leading advocate for veterans and disabled Americans generally. His support was key to passing the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.
Wednesday night, the two showed off the humor they used to grease the wheels of negotiations.
"Once you leave politics, your approval rating goes straight up," said Dole, seated next to his wife Elizabeth, also a former senator. "People write you letters saying, "I never liked you, you so-and-so, while you were in the Senate, but now I think you're a pretty good guy. And please send me an autographed picture— of Elizabeth."
Baker said he had remarks several pages long but would invoke Senate procedure in the soaring Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, a few blocks from the Capitol.
"To spare you the details ... I ask unanimous consent that my remarks be included in the record," he said.
In a video tribute, former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., noted: "That's what's missing now. There's no humor."