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Deals that changed history

A look back at three major pieces of historical federal legislation, started and finished by small groups of men intent on statesmanship.

President Eisenhower (r.) receives ideas for a massive highway program in 1955.

Byron Rollins/AP

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The storied congressional dealmakers are the ones who see opportunities for a breakthrough on tough issues that others may miss – and find ways to change minds.

No golden age of Congress exists when bills breezed through the House and Senate with little debate, harsh words, or procedural "obstruction." Big bills often take years, even decades, to be enacted, not because the process is deeply flawed, but because of the divides that exist among voters, regions, and interests.

That's where the dealmakers can make a difference. Some, like Henry Clay, were eloquent; others less so. Their strategies varied, but all had a sense of what was politically possible and found ways to seize the moment, for good or ill. Three examples epitomize different dimensions of dealmaking on Capitol Hill over the decades:

The Compromise of 1850

The package of five bills, which delayed the onset of the Civil War by a decade, began as the masterwork of Whig Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, then in the twilight of a brilliant political career. But it could not have passed without the raw political energy of Sen. Stephen Douglas (D) of Illinois, part of a new generation of leaders.

The end of the Mexican War in 1848 set off a firestorm over whether the new territories would be slave or free. These and a host of other issues widened the rifts between the North and South.


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