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Sunday, December 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — You have delighted us long enough, Congress. That’s what Jane Austen would say. Perhaps it’s time you go home on your summer recess.

(Note to self and reader: this column will borrow a pinch of sugar and salt from Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s most sparkling novel. Just because there is a lot of pride — and many prejudices — in Congress.)

Oh, wait, the House just left town, rudely leaving the Senate holding the bag on the important highway transportation funding bill for all 50 states. The Senate actually worked out a massive bipartisan highway bill — that covers crumbling bridges, too.

The small miracle was that Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) worked together to make it happen. They are the most arch-conservative and the most liberal members of the 100 members in the Capitol chamber. It gives you a breath of hope, to see them defending and explaining the bill out on the floor — and giving credit and respect to each other. That’s the way the Senate is supposed to work. Boxer was elected in 1992 and Inhofe in 1994, so they are old hands.

The lively Californian and the rugged Oklahoman resemble young Elizabeth Bennet and high-class Mr. Darcy, the leading characters of Pride and Prejudice (roughly 200 years old) who are, at first glance, perfect opposites. He is pride, and she is prejudice. He will not even dance with her at first, conscious of his social station, but soon falls to her wit and beauty: “the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”

Like Elizabeth, Boxer speaks her mind plainly. When she heard the House might defy custom and leave for summer early without voting on the Senate highway bill, she scolded the other chamber publicly: “Do your job!” Austen might have written the lines differently, but she might have appreciated the refreshing American candor.

I’m not saying she and Inhofe took walks around the verdure in the summer rain, but if they can bridge their differences, then anyone can. For starters, Inhofe denies the existence of global warming, and Boxer is an ardent environmentalist. In the end, the resulting bill did not please either of them, they declared, but that’s a sign of true compromise.

Let’s remember the interstate highway system was created under a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, also a general.

A great nation has to have at least a good infrastructure. Check with the builders of ancient Roman roads, bridges, and aqueducts on that. Soldiers and citizens alike moved around the Republic and then the Empire, farther than ever before. A highway bill is just fundamental to governing. As the granddaughter of Wisconsin’s chief highway engineer, I take it personally. My grandfather, a man of few words, saw no politics in the hundreds of roads he worked on through his career. In fact, he had no use for politics, but boy, did he love highways, catalogued with photos in the basement.

Here in Washington, the untold story is we have some glimmers of bipartisan civility in the Senate. The real trouble in getting things done may be the strife between the Republican Senate and the Republican House — in culture and manner. In a glaring moment, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said something that would make Austen faint. As reported in Politico, he called the Senate highway bill “a piece of s**t.”

Sorry, that’s not sporting. As Boxer said, she could not repeat it on the Senate floor because that would break the rules. Inhofe was more stoic, but neither was pleased when the House left without doing their homework on passage of a highway bill. A three-month extension or “patch” was passed by both houses.

Everything ends perfectly in Austen’s novel at Pemberley, Darcy’s gorgeous estate. Elizabeth dearly loves to laugh, and life will be sparkling, for sure. Not so much here under the dome. It’s a bit gloomy this summer. Inhofe and Boxer did their best.

At the Dumbarton House, which is a perfect period piece (1800), Pride and Prejudice was shown under the stars the other cinema night. Who knew she knew so much about politics.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Creators.com

Screenshot: Sens. Boxer and Inhofe, 2012. (via Jim Inhofe/YouTube)