Congress is off to a bipartisan start, but tougher tests lie ahead

After a bitterly fought midterm election, Democrats controlling the new Congress pledged to transcend partisanship and tackle the big problems that concern Americans. Then, something happened that neither Washington insiders nor, probably, even the voters expected: Lawmakers began acting as if they meant it.

In the 110th Congress's first 100 legislative hours, which wrapped up Thursday, House Democrats drew a significant number of GOP votes on their "Six for '06" agenda, despite giving minority Republicans little voice in shaping the legislation.

A rule change to overhaul lobbying and ethics reform cleared the House on a nearly unanimous vote. A bill to enact additional antiterror recommendations of the 9/11 commission pulled 68 GOP votes. Eighty-two Republicans helped pass the first increase in the federal minimum wage in nine years; 37 Republicans supported expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research; and 124 members of the GOP caucus joined Democrats to gradually cut interest rates in half on student loans.

At the same time, Democrats in the House and Senate scrambled this week to find partners on the other side of the aisle to challenge the White House over its conduct of the Iraq war. On Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska became the first Republican to formally break with the Bush White House, by supporting a bipartisan resolution opposing the president's plan to send more US troops.

Heeding the voters

The bipartisan, problem-solving mantra is one that lawmakers of both stripes say they took straight from voters in the midterm election. "The message in the last election was a resounding repudiation of the status quo and partisanship that had poisoned the ability of Congress to develop solutions," says Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine. "People are demanding government and results. People were so disaffected, and that really has been a galvanizing force toward bipartisanship."

Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois sounded a similar note in launching his presidential exploratory committee this week. "I've been struck by how hungry we are for a different kind of politics," he said. "It's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me most, it's the smallness of our politics."

More strange bedfellows

Interest groups and lobbyists, too, seem to have caught the spirit, at least a little. Some say they are finding an opening for bipartisan cooperation in the 110th Congress that could lead to breakthroughs on issues ranging from climate change to universal healthcare.

Some of these issues are not now at the top of Democrats' agenda. On Tuesday, leaders of the Business Roundtable, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the AARP (a lobby group for seniors), announced they were, for the first time, joining forces to push Congress for universal-healthcare legislation.

"There are a lot of things Congress needs to do that are now doable," says Bill Novelli, AARP's CEO. "What's really powering this is that these problems have gotten so bad." Healthcare costs are breaking employers, who are shifting costs to employees. "It's now the middle class that is affected, and the middle class is very worried," he says. "When you get to that kind of situation, there's a lot of pressure."

Views are converging around a healthcare approach that combines elements of patient cost-sharing and government regulation. "The answer to the healthcare problem is not one of policy but one of politics," said SEIU's Andy Stern.

On another front, 28 evangelical leaders and climate scientists signed a joint "call for action" Wednesday. The partnership taps into a rich vein for bipartisan collaboration in the new Congress. In the run-up to President Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday, which is expected to feature new energy initiatives, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle announced new collaborations on energy policy.

"Congress and the American people cannot afford to wait for the White House to lead on this issue," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, as he previewed work by six committees on energy independence. In one of the strongest bipartisan collaborations on Capitol Hill, Sens. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are sponsoring a resolution calling on the US to return to international negotiations to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

On the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota, Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana, and Ken Salazar (D) of Colorado introduced this week a bill to cut oil imports by 7 million barrels a day by 2026.

A united front on the Iraq war?

The strongest pull for bipartisan cooperation is shaping up to be the Iraq war. GOP senators seen to be wavering on their support for Mr. Bush's "new way forward" in Iraq were called to the White House Wednesday for consultations.

"I suspect very little mind-changing went on there, but I'm hopeful that some of this gets back to the president," says Senator Coleman, one of a dozen senators who reportedly met with administration officials. He doesn't support "putting American forces into the cross hairs of sectarian violence," but has yet to sign on to a resolution opposing it.

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