Lawmakers preach bipartisanship, but obstacles lie ahead for Congress
As he endorsed the FIRST STEP Act Wednesday, President Donald Trump stressed that the criminal justice reform legislation has support from Republicans and Democrats, presenting it as a prime example of what can happen when the parties seek common ground for the good of the country and expressing optimism that bipartisanship can thrive even in a bitterly divided Congress.
“Working together with my administration over the last two years, these members have reached a bipartisan agreement. Did I hear the word ‘bipartisan?’” Trump said to laughter and applause. “Did I hear—did I hear that word? That’s a nice word.”
Far from a punchline, bipartisanship will be a political necessity if either party wants to accomplish anything between now and the 2020 election. In the midterm elections, voters handed Democrats control of the House of Representatives while giving Republicans a firmer grip on the majority in the Senate.
The campaigns were hard-fought and highly partisan, and accusations of election theft are still flying on both sides as some races remain undecided. Current House members said Wednesday it is time to bandage wounds and begin healing.
“I was not happy we lost the majority in the House, but it’s the will of the voters,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill. “Now, we have an opportunity to work together. Politics ended on Election Day.”
A Congress that accomplishes nothing of significance for two years because everyone retreats to their corners could find it difficult to make a case to voters for re-election.
“The people in my district, around the state of Michigan and all around the country, they just want to see government work,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich. “They don’t want to see ideological battles. They don’t want to see political spats. They want us to roll up our sleeves, argue out our differences, but find common ground and move forward on the big questions we face as a country.”
According to Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., Republicans are entering their new minority status with an open mind, rather than fashioning themselves as a “resistance” force like he feels some Democrats did after 2016.
“We’re the loyal opposition,” he said. “We’re loyal to the United States, but we’re the opposition party. Being loyal to the United States, that means when we think things are good for the U.S., we’ll work with the Democrats. When we disagree with the Democrats, I think it’s our obligation to be the opposition.”
Even if they wanted to ignore the will of House Republicans, Democrats recognize they would still need to reckon with a Republican Senate and a Republican president.
“We’re not looking for a Democrat-led House to pass legislation that won’t pass the Senate, and in order to pass the Senate, it has to be bipartisan,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md.
Infrastructure funding, prescription drug pricing, paid family-leave, and some foreign policy issues are areas ripe for lawmakers to find consensus, and experts expect they will be able to move the ball forward on at least a few of them.
“There will be legislative accomplishments in certain areas, but those may be overshadowed by a discourse and tone that is very partisan,” said Jordan Tama, a professor at American University who is working on a book titled “Bipartisanship in a Polarized Age: When Democrats and Republicans Cooperate on U.S. Foreign Policy.”
In the days after the election, leaders in both parties appealed for a more cooperative approach than was seen in the first two years of Trump’s presidency. Trump has said it might even be easier to work with a Democratic House than the GOP majority he has now.
“Where I am now when they have a small majority, I can sit back and say, ‘hey.’ And the beauty is when it gets passed, when we pass things, we’ll get it passed in the Senate, which now we can’t because we need 10 Democrat votes. Because we’ll have Democrats and I’ll be able to get enough Republicans to pass,” he told The Daily Caller Wednesday.
Trump has made a point of opening the door to bipartisanship in public comments since the election, but, often in the same breath, he has threatened to slam it shut if House Democrats pursue investigations of his administration—something they are certain to do.
“You can’t do them simultaneously, by the way,” he said at a news conference last week. “Just think if somebody said, ‘Oh, you can do them both.’ No, you can’t. Because if they’re doing that, we’re not doing the other, just so you understand.”
According to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Democrats will try to balance holding the Trump administration accountable, pursuing shared priorities, and advancing a progressive agenda that has little chance of surviving in the Senate.
"We will strive for bipartisanship. We believe that we have a responsibility to seek common ground where we can. Where we cannot, we must stand our ground, but we must try," she said last Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., implored Democrats in Fox News op-ed Tuesday to “choose to work together and actually make a difference” instead of trying to score political points.
McConnell’s overture toward bipartisanship was met by some on the left with eye-rolls, laughter, and references to Merrick Garland, the Supreme Court nominee he refused to allow hearings on for President Obama’s final 11 months in office. Many also recalled McConnell’s 2010 statement that the most important goal for Republicans was to ensure that Barack Obama was a one-term president.
Still, experts say the calls for comity are probably at least somewhat genuine.
“All things being equal, it’s better to come to work every day and not have to run into a stone wall of opposition from the other side,” said Ross Baker, a former congressional staffer and professor at Rutgers University who authored “Is Bipartisanship Dead? A Report from the Senate.”
The challenge is overcoming political incentives to obstruct, divide, and deflect.
“The vast majority of our national leaders are good people with bad incentives,” said Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “They all run for office because they actually want to solve problems and govern. I think people are sincere when they assert they’re committed to making progress.”
Members of both parties insist Congress is already more bipartisan than daily cable news slugfests make it seem.
“I think there’s a misconception we need to continue to work to overcome,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich. “There are about 240 bills that passed both houses and were signed by the president this session. Of those, 70 percent were bipartisan—that is Democrat and Republican cosponsorship. That’s the highest percentage in 20 years.”
In addition to the FIRST STEP Act—which still needs to clear the Senate—Republicans and Democrats have come together on opioid legislation, veterans’ programs, some appropriations bills, and more. Sanctions against Russia and North Korea have also drawn bipartisan support, sometimes over White House opposition.
“There’s much more governing happening in this country than I think most people understand,” Grumet said. “On the same day the Senate was savaging itself over the Kavanaugh nomination, they passed meaningful legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and significant legislation to confront the opioid crisis.”
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., noted that he and other Republicans worked with Democrats on a discharge petition to force the GOP majority to allow votes on immigration reform in June. That effort failed, but he suggested it may be possible to make another run at immigration with Democrats in charge.
“I think in terms of saying, listen, there are answers out there and, as long as you don’t try to make it a home run for one side or another but do something responsible to address Dreamers, to address agriculture workers, to address the visa system, to address people who entered without interview, all those things, that’d be a win for both sides,” Amodei said.
The parties remain far apart on other aspects of immigration policy, climate change, taxes, and entitlement programs, so some partisan gridlock will persist.
“I think the biggest obstacle obviously is the items on the agenda,” Baker said. “You can construct an agenda for each house of Congress in such a way as to avoid the issues bound to produce the most polarized results.”
An early test of the new environment on Capitol Hill could come in the weeks ahead as a lame-duck Congress works to pass a controversial five-year farm bill and appropriations bills that are poised to spark a showdown with the White House over funding for a border wall. Several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, are currently set to run out of money on Dec. 7.
House Democrats have delayed their leadership elections until incoming members are seated in January, but House Republicans officially elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as minority leader Wednesday. On the Senate side, McConnell will remain majority leader and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. has been re-elected as minority leader.
While Pelosi has signaled a desire for bipartisan progress, there is no guarantee she will be speaker of the House in 2019. More than a dozen Democrats have reportedly signed a letter vowing to vote against her on the House floor.
“I have overwhelming support in my caucus to be speaker of the House,” Pelosi said Thursday. “I happen to think at this point, I’m the best person for that.”
There is currently no other Democrat lined up to challenge Pelosi for the gavel, but if someone else successfully unseats her, it might drastically alter the dynamics between Congress and the White House. Pelosi has a proven ability to herd an ideologically diverse caucus behind major legislation, and few others in the Democratic caucus have that kind of experience.
“There are some House Democrats who really do want to pursue bipartisanship in a serious way, and particularly Democrats from a swing district,” Tama said. “Democrats who are further to the left are more likely to want to advance progressive policies goals rather than prioritizing cooperation with Republicans.”
Another significant variable for the next Congress is the 2020 presidential race, which, to some degree, has already begun. President Trump has held dozens of re-election rallies and raised over $100 million, while several prominent Democrats have confirmed they are considering a run against him. A handful of Senate Democrats could be aggressively jockeying for frontrunner status by next summer, if not sooner.
“This is a habitual problem in the Senate,” Baker said. “The Senate has always been a staging ground for the presidency There’s an understanding they have to do what they have to do to get the nomination and the party leader has to do what they have to do to pass legislation.”
Whether Washington succeeds or fails in finding compromises on major issues next year will still rest largely on President Trump. Anything Congress wants to pass needs his signature, and if he follows through on his threat to foreclose cooperation in response to congressional oversight, there isn't much lawmakers can do without him.
“Trump sets the tone for Republicans in Congress,” Tama said. “It’s very difficult for Republicans to pursue an issue with Democrats if Trump’s not behind them. He’s the wild card.”
Trump’s popularity and influence with the Republican base can overcome any ambivalence GOP lawmakers feel toward more bipartisan priorities if he supports them or grind legislative efforts to a halt if he does not.
“The president has really significant capacity to drive his party’s agenda,” Grumet said. “I think the fealty he has from his base is very deep and that’s a ton of political capital that he’s going to have to decide how he wants to deploy.”