Washington just finished a surprisingly bipartisan week. Here's how.

This week, Senate committees reached accords on three divisive issues: Iran, trade, and overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law.

Susan Walsh/AP
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., sitting next to ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., at the start of a hearing looking at ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015.

When Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee stepped down from his position in the Senate Republican leadership a few years ago, it puzzled Washington. Politicians don’t usually give up power willingly. But the former governor said the move would “liberate” him to legislate, to work in a bipartisan manner to get results.

He realized his goal in a big way on Thursday, as he led his Senate education committee to unanimously back an overhaul of one of the nation’s most contentious laws – the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), reviled by many for student testing mandates and federal overreach.

After the stunning 22-to-0 vote was announced, applause broke out in the hearing room, punctuated by someone exclaiming, “Wow!” Democratic senators effusively praised the leadership of Chairman Alexander and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.

Such bipartisanship is a rarity in dysfunctional Washington. But like the cherry blossoms that graced the city this week, accord was on refreshing display in the Senate, particularly in the committees where much of the work is actually done.

“This week in the Senate was one where you saw some ice starting to break," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, at a Monitor breakfast on Friday.

Using basic leadership skills – listening, driving toward results, hard work – GOP committee chairmen and key Democrats were able to reach agreements on some very divisive issues: trade, Iran, and education.

Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank, calls these skills “Sesame Street” fundamentals, practiced by lawmakers. “These are hardworking people,” he says of the committee leaders. “They care about issues. They respect differences of opinion.”

But he also points out that there is “no magic elixir” for leadership, no “single archetype” of a capable legislator. The committee chairmen and ranking members involved in this week’s problem solving trifecta are very different people. Their diverse views and backgrounds reflect the country’s diversity, Mr. Grumet says. “The ability to turn that into a strength has always been the unique credential of our country.”

Take the case of Senators Alexander and Murray. He’s a former governor and US secretary of Education (under President George H.W. Bush). Despite his record of working across the aisle, he once described himself as a “very Republican Republican.” She was president of her local school board and then a state senator who famously ran for the US Senate as a “mom in tennis shoes.” She’s a liberal. 

Two years ago, a rewrite of NCLB again crashed on the rocks of partisanship in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, with members lining up behind separate Democratic and Republican bills along party lines.

As the new chairman under a GOP-controlled Senate, Alexander did things differently this time. He listened to Democrat Murray, who told him early on that starting off with his own version of a bill – which is certainly the chairman’s prerogative – was a bad idea given the great divisions on the subject. She suggested first working together to present a bipartisan draft for the committee.

“Good advice,” said Alexander on Thursday.

What they discovered from that effort was a consensus to continue the law’s measurements of students’ academic progress, but to restore to states and communities the responsibility for deciding what to do about student achievement.

Alexander also stayed true to his agreement with Murray for a bipartisan, open process to deal with changes to the draft. The committee considered 57 amendments – 29 of which were adopted, and most of which were offered by Democrats. The process took longer than Alexander expected, but it generated needed trust.

On Thursday, Democrats heaped praise on Alexander and Murray, thanking them for the “tone, tenor, and process” and for their “remarkable leadership.” Even liberal icon Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts said that despite some objections to the bill, she would vote yes, given the committee leadership’s commitment to keep working on her issues.

“I believe you are working in good faith,” she said, adding that she would continue her fight on the Senate floor.

Listening to the other side was essential to all of this week’s deals, and so was the pragmatic drive toward results. 

 That was evident in another surprising, unanimous committee vote Tuesday. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bipartisan bill to give Congress the right to review any final deal with Iran to prevent it from gaining a nuclear weapon – and to approve, disapprove, or do nothing about lifting congressional sanctions (doing nothing would still allow the president to go forward with a deal).

Moving that ball along was Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, a congenial, energetic senator who has been extremely frustrated with gridlock. In 2012, he told the Associated Press that the last couple of years were like “watching paint dry.” He added, “One has to ask oneself, is this worth a grown man’s time?”

But then in November, the tables turned, Republicans won the Senate, and Senator Corker became chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The former business entrepreneur and mayor of Chattanooga was in a position to actually go somewhere with his executive drive. He stayed relentlessly focused on getting a veto-proof majority for the Iran bill. 

His partner in getting to the finish line was the new ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who took on that post after Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey was indicted April 1 in connection with an alleged bribery scheme. 

Senator Cardin became a sort of horse whisperer with the White House, relaying its concerns and working with Corker to alter the bill. Enough Democrats came on board that the White House relented on its veto threat.

Cardin, a career, liberal politician, and Corker shared a pragmatic approach. “We started with the premise that we wanted the bill to work,” Cardin said, according to Politico. 

The two men put in long hours and worked the phones as they managed their respective wings, but that’s part of the job of being in a leadership position. 

For months, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Senator Wyden – the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee – have been working to reach a bipartisan deal that would grant the president “fast-track” authority for negotiating a Pacific trade pact.

The pact involves a total of 12 countries, including the United States, and would be the largest free trade agreement since President Clinton clashed with trade unions over the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many lawmakers in both parties consider a jobs killer.

It’s been a long, tricky negotiation involving a third person and another chamber – Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. A deal was announced Thursday, though it faces stiff opposition from Democrats and House Republicans, and has yet to be voted on in the Senate Finance Committee.

“I’ve worked my butt off to try and get this,” said Senator Hatch – the most senior Republican in the Senate, known both for his fierce opposition to Democrats and his work with them. No doubt, the other players did, too. 

None of these three agreements are laws yet, and any of them could fail as they move forward – particularly the trade agreement. But success begets success, and after a long drought of that on the Hill, lawmakers are encouraged.

“I’m an optimist, so I always want to see these examples of progress,” says Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) of Wisconsin, who also lauded Alexander and Murray for their leadership.

It depends on context, she said, but generally, when bipartisan bills advance,  "Let’s celebrate each of those steps forward.”

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