The Senate is very proud of its reputation as a collegial and decorous institution. At this point in the chamber's history, though, that reputation largely obscures a vicious and cruel operational reality.
Take Ted Kennedy, for instance. He spent a lifetime serving in the Senate. His warm relationships with his Republican colleagues were proof that the Senate's unique culture could foster a cooperative environment between liberals and conservatives. His many bipartisan bills served as proof that, at one point, it actually had. But when his death threatened to imperil the passage of the bill he considered the work of his life? Not a single Republican stepped forward to assure him that his absence wouldn't be the decisive factor. There was no offer to act, at least from the standpoint of procedural votes, as if the wishes of Kennedy, or of the voters who elected him, mattered.
Another example came Sunday night, when the ailing Robert Byrd was wheeled in at 1 a.m. to break a filibuster on the manager's amendment. Byrd's presence was not required, especially considering that he'd clearly telegraphed his intention to vote to break the filibuster. But Republicans forced him to travel to the chamber. Indeed, shortly before he arrived, Sen. Tom Coburn headed to the floor to propose a prayer. "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight," he said. "That's what they ought to pray."
The Senate hasn't just lost a bit of its collegiality. It's become heartlessly ferocious -- a place where the death of an honored friend presents an opportunity to kill his legislation, and in which the infirmity of an ailing colleague is seen as a potential path to procedural victory.
It is, of course, a tough world out there. There are greater injustices than senators being mean to one another. But the Senate's rules are predicated on courtesy and cooperation. The body cannot function without unanimous consent, and procedures like the filibuster were included because the expectation was that the body could routinely discover consensus.
At this point in its history, however, consensus is a laughable goal. Basic decency doesn't even seem achievable. And if the behavior of the Senate has changed, then so too must its rules.
EZRA KLEIN, WRITING AT VOICES.WASHINGTONPOST.COM/EZRA-KLEIN