Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- As the Senate this month neared its summer recess, the senior Republican senator delivered a rebuke to the second-ranking Democratic leader. It generated little public notice, but the incident reflected that the current Senate as a partisan snakepit follows some traditional folkways.

Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, Senate president pro tempore, thwarted Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, who was seeking a $2 million earmark for the University of Chicago. Stevens, as a reigning king of pork, cracking down on earmarking is drenched in irony. Durbin's earmark was rejected on a party-line vote, after debate that got personal on Stevens's part.

Why this violation of senatorial politesse? Public mortification of an opposition leader reflects harshness on today's Capitol Hill. It also points up pitfalls of Durbin's pugnacious style that elevated him to No. 2 Democrat after eight years in the Senate. Tough, old Ted Stevens was mad and determined to get even after humiliation by Durbin last autumn.

On Nov. 16, 2005, Durbin took the Senate floor to attack Stevens for permitting oil company executives to lie to the Senate Commerce Committee by not putting them under oath. Two days short of his 82nd birthday, Stevens was outraged by this assault on his integrity. Durbin's remarks about the man fourth in line for the U.S. presidency indeed were extraordinary.

Displaying a famous temper often seen during 37 Senate years, Stevens roared onto the floor after Durbin's speech. He demanded Durbin's apology under Senate Rule 19 prohibiting senators from accusing each other of "unworthy" behavior. The Senate parliamentarian said the rule did not apply because Stevens was not on the floor objecting when Durbin spoke. Durbin, who gives no quarter, declined to apologize. He had made a formidable enemy, but Stevens bided his time.

Payback time came Aug. 2, when the Defense appropriations bill was debated under management of Stevens as Appropriations subcommittee chairman. Durbin proposed his University of Chicago earmark to improve imaging of traumatic brain injuries. The hook connecting this with Defense was "adaptation of current technologies to treat brain injuries suffered in combat." Durbin had been turned down in Stevens's subcommittee, but he used his access as whip to try again on the floor. The co-sponsor -- Durbin's junior Senate colleague from Illinois, Barack Obama -- was nowhere to be seen for what ensued.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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