Florida delegation should sit down over cake

Published September 23, 2006

WASHINGTON - As Congress became bitterly partisan over the past decade, the Florida delegation remained an oasis of civility.

The Floridians got along and stuck together. The delegation met often and, at election time, the members refrained from attacking one another.

Lately, however, that bipartisan spirit has deteriorated. The Floridians are throwing sand at each other.

Relations reached the breaking point this week with an ugly dispute between three South Florida lawmakers: Republican Clay Shaw and Democrats Robert Wexler and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Before it was over, Wasserman Schultz was likening Shaw to Marie Antoinette, suggesting that the Fort Lauderdale Republican might be beheaded.

The dustup began with an opinion column by Wexler in the Palm Beach Post that criticized the gap in Medicare drug coverage that Democrats call "the doughnut hole." His column criticized Republicans but did not mention Shaw.

Yet when Shaw responded with his own op-ed, he criticized Wexler by name and accused the Boca Raton congressman of "Mediscare."

Wexler and Wasserman Schultz then retaliated by staging a Capitol Hill press conference.

"It's just shocking how insensitive and callous Congressman Shaw can be about the needs of our seniors," said Wasserman Schultz, according to an account in the Sun-Sentinel.

She likened Shaw's attitude about the drug plan to Marie Antoinette saying of the peasants, "let them eat cake."

"And we all know what happened to Marie Antoinette," the Weston congresswoman said, referring to the beheading of the French queen.

This marked the first time in my nine years in Washington that a member of our delegation has discussed the possible beheading of a colleague.

But I shouldn't be surprised. In the toxic politics of the modern age, you can be outrageous as you want - as long as you get mentioned in the media.

The bitter fight is just one episode in the deterioration of bipartisanship in the Florida delegation. Republicans and Democrats meet less often about state issues. Instead, they hold private lunches with their own parties.

Democrats complained that they were excluded during talks about a compromise on offshore oil drilling.

"Negotiating a deal on offshore drilling behind closed doors compromises Florida's shores and the people we represent," they wrote in a June letter to Shaw, who chairs the delegation.

So why have things deteriorated?

Politics and some new personalities.

This year, politics is a game of inches, with each side scrapping for every vote to determine which party will control Congress. Shaw is facing his toughest re-election race ever, from state Sen. Ron Klein. In the op-ed, Shaw's criticism of Wexler sounded like it was really aimed at Klein.

Likewise, the Democrats' counter-attack was timed to occur the same week that Klein and other Democratic candidates blamed Republicans for the doughnut hole. Klein had a campaign event Friday at a doughnut shop.

New personalities in the delegation have also changed the tone. As older members have retired, they've been replaced by ambitious newcomers who came of age in the era of cable TV shoutfests and partisan blogs. They see politics as a contact sport.

Wasserman Schultz, who is completing her first term, has no apologies about her tactics. She says she hasn't seen the legendary Florida bipartisanship in her two years in Congress and believes a little hardball with the Republicans is okay.

"We have major policy differences," she said. "There are going to be some rough words said. It's not personal."

By contrast, Shaw's behavior is out of character. A 67-year-old cancer survivor, Shaw is a gentle man who has always reminded me of a leprechaun. Like Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, Shaw has lived through the political cycles in Washington. He knows you have be nice to members of the opposition today because tomorrow, they may be running the place.

But under the pressure of a tough campaign, Shaw resorted to the partisan playbook.

He now regrets it.

"If I had to do it over again, I'd write the same letter, but leave (Wexler) out of it," Shaw said.

Partisan spats like this one can have important consequences. The next time the delegation needs to unite on an important issue like oil drilling, there may be so much distrust that the lawmakers can't get together.

If that happens, all Floridians could pay dearly.

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0575.