David M. Shribman

This is how strange contemporary Washington has become: In the Senate -- the less combative branch of congressional Republicanism -- John McCain, the self-proclaimed maverick who once nearly was invited to join a Democratic national ticket, and Susan Collins, the Maine moderate who often sides with Democrats -- are regarded, and sometimes disparaged, as the Republican Old Guard.

Of course, this does not mean that the GOP has drifted leftward. On the contrary. It means that all the assumptions once brought to bear on congressional Republicans are out of date. Dead. Relegated to the deep, dark past.

This spring these two occasional renegades found themselves in the role of Old Guardians by virtue of their longevity (McCain has been on Capitol Hill for 30 years, Collins nearly as long, if her years as a congressional aide are counted), and guardians of party tradition by virtue of their temperament (which is to say accommodating, though they delight in being unpredictable in whom they might accommodate).

But these days, an accommodating temperament and longevity are passe, so these two onetime rebels found themselves at the ramparts over discussions about (and this is the remarkable thing) whether discussions should even be held over debt limit and budget issues. It is probably not necessary to add that yet another budget crisis looms.

For 10 weeks -- about the length of an American general election campaign -- Senate budget talks with the House have been stalled. Actually, they haven't really begun, and as a result the vital appropriations process is in peril -- a potent symbol of government dysfunction. At war are two absolutes: the absolute necessity to address budget questions and the absolute refusal to engage those questions without preconditions.

Before you leap to the conclusion that Republicans are being intransigent, remember that many of the tea partiers are tired of being rolled in negotiations, tired of watching tax increases creep into law, tired of watching ineffectually as big government stays big or gets bigger.

So if you are sitting on the right, intransigence seems prudent. And congressional comity -- an SAT word you used to hear on Capitol Hill -- could seem beside the point.

Increasingly, the nation sits helplessly by while two parallel range wars are conducted on Capitol Hill.

The first is the usual one, drearily familiar though it may be, that pits Democrats (basically interchangeable with liberals) against Republicans (basically interchangeable with conservatives).

But the second is more interesting, and maybe more consequential. It pits veteran Republicans, reared in a Senate where comity ruled and intransigence was regarded as bad manners, against newly minted Republican senators, who regard the upper house as a torture chamber where principles go to die.

The result is a drastic change in two of the most important institutions in American civic life: The Republican Party (which in both houses of Congress provided a far higher rate of support than the Democrats for the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and the Senate (where the American filibuster was invented, and then twisted to a form that would be unrecognizable to its onetime masters).

For many years, political scientists and political commentators regarded the Senate as if it were invulnerable to outside influences, exempt from time, existing in a world of its own and, more to the point, of its own making. This circumstance prevailed for decades, even into recent memory.

But that no longer is the case. The first breezes of change came with television, resisted by many of the Senate's old bulls at a time when the phrase was redundant, but implemented under an agreement between Republican Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas, no rebel against tradition, and Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the most stubborn defender of Senate customs and prerogatives ever.

That changed everything, including the color of the Senate walls, which soon were adjusted to look better on television. Junior lawmakers like Sen. Albert Gore Jr., a particularly deft manipulator of Senate TV, developed visibility and power beyond the expectation and experience of their predecessors.

The changes did not stop there. Public affairs programming on cable television and the faux drama and high-fever rhetoric it rewarded transformed all of politics, the Senate especially. This new ethos reinforced a broader culture of confrontation and devalued the sense of reason that the Senate, a product of the 18th-century Enlightenment and its celebration of reason, once symbolized.

"Now it's all or nothing, compromise is a four-letter word, it's what plays on the cable shows each night rather than the sweep of time (that matters)," says Kenneth M. Duberstein, who once worked for one of the giants of the old Senate, Republican Jacob K. Javits of New York, and eventually became White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan. "No wonder the party elders are in short supply. Their wisdom and voices of reason are easily dismissed by those who insist on instant gratification, who believe that they are right, and if you disagree you are to be demonized and destroyed."

But it's not only the contemplative streak of the Senate that has been jeopardized. If there were one characteristic beyond the ruminative quality of the Senate that the Old Guard cultivated and revered -- reflected in its tone and tempo -- it was this: honor.

Some lawmakers of the old temperament complain that the current Senate pressed for a budget, but now refuses to go to conference with the House to hammer one out -- the word "hammer" indicative of the fact that the contemplative Senate of the past was nevertheless combative.

That sense of resistance -- dishonor, some of the Old Guard would say -- is not the way things used to work in the old days. But then again, in the old days, things used to work.