by Jules Witcover

A Democratic president takes a bunch of Republican senators to dinner and invites the losing GOP vice-presidential nominee to lunch. Meanwhile, a freshman Republican filibusters the Senate for 13 hours against theoretical U.S. use of unmanned drones on our own soil. What's going on here?

It seems that an epidemic of direct talk has broken out to break the partisan logjam, from the White House to Capitol Hill. It comes on the heels of President Obama's declaration that nothing could be accomplished anymore in Washington, obliging him to go out into the country to light a citizen fire under Congress.

That initiative, which became a centerpiece of his successful re-election campaign last fall, was resumed in the run-up to the fiscal fight over the much-feared, much-hyped "sequestration." More stonewalling on both sides led to the virtual across-the-board budget cuts that now threaten to slow if not paralyze the government.

The president hit the campaign trail again, apparently believing that his congressional opposition would crumble if he sounded the alarm about the dire outcomes if the federal spigot is shut down. Only pressure from outside Washington, he argued, would stir the Republican leadership in Congress to talk turkey.

Will all this chatter end up signifying nothing? Maybe. But at least it suggests a new awareness that the American people are fed up with a dysfunctional seat of government, with opposing sides doing little but talk past each other for dramatic rather than substantive purpose.

That's where the surprise spectacle of Sen. Rand Paul's 13-hour filibuster comes in. The Kentucky freshman is usually dismissed, along with his father, Congressman and Libertarian Party icon Ron Paul, as an eccentric dreamer. But he caught the public imagination with his marathon version of Jimmy Stewart in the film classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

In that fictional tale, the hero took on the Washington establishment of special interests and corruption, to the eventual cheers of the Senate galleries. In real life, Paul offered his own fictional yarn of a possible drone attack on an American citizen at home suspected of being a prospective terrorist.

The young Kentuckian tilted with his particular windmill in the course of opposing the Senate confirmation of Obama's nominee for director of the CIA, veteran intelligence operative John Brennan. He demanded to know whether "the president has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, and without trial."

In reply, Attorney General Eric Holder said, after first observing that an "extraordinary circumstance" might exist, that the government had no right to kill an American "not engaged in combat on American soil." So score one for the contemporary Mr. Smith, though Brennan was subsequently confirmed.

Setting aside Paul's shared reputation with his father as an otherworldly crackpot, saying at length what was on his mind offered a stark contrast to what has been going on in official Washington through most of the Obama administration's tenure.

That is, on one hand, the extended refusal of Republican congressional leaders to compromise with the Democratic president, and on the other, his seeming disinclination to get down into the trenches with individual Republican legislators to talk things out on a personal level. The latest flurry of apparent togetherness may offer the best hope yet for a functioning Washington in Obama's remaining years in the White House.

Words, as they say, are cheap. But their expenditure in an open and earnest effort by responsible members of the executive and legislative branches to generate some break in the current fiscal and budgetary inertia would be a marked improvement in the second Obama term.

Much of such talk necessarily must take place in private, with or without the breaking of bread. It would be refreshing, however, to see a return to open and vigorous debate on the floors of the House and Senate, which should not be merely the stuff of make-believe movies about Washington at work.


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