Returning to Washington after the August recess, Sen. Tim Kaine sensed that change was in the air.
The embarrassing failure of Republican lawmakers to repeal and replace Obamacare – one of the GOP’s top priorities – along with the sharp criticism many members had aimed at President Trump after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., would make for a “dramatically different” dynamic in the nation’s capital, the Virginia Democrat told reporters.
But even he had no idea how dramatic a political shift was in store.
This week, Mr. Trump abruptly decided to give bipartisanship a try. Ignoring the wishes of Republican congressional leaders and his own cabinet, he brokered a deal with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer to advance hurricane aid, along with a three-month extension of the nation’s borrowing ability and spending, plus a temporary extension of federal flood insurance.
The $15.3 billion deal passed the Senate Thursday and the House on Friday – albeit without the votes of many conservatives in both chambers, who objected to bundling hurricane aid with a vote on the debt ceiling and to the lack of spending controls.
This is not the kind of bipartisanship Washington is used to. Instead of working behind the scenes to bring key players on both sides of an issue together, Trump publicly sided with Democrats in a way that clearly caught members of his own team off guard. And no one on either side of the aisle is necessarily counting on this trend to last. Still, it gave Trump one roadmap for how to bypass congressional gridlock and move forward on an important matter. And that, in turn, may help ease the way forward on some other top legislative priorities.
“We can all criticize the deal, but the one thing that happened is, we got a deal,” says Sen. David Perdue (R) of Georgia, one of the president’s allies on the Hill. “I look at that as progress in a place that’s this dysfunctional.”
That's not to say many Republicans didn't take the move as a slap in the face.
“My problem with what happened Tuesday was the way it was done,” says former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi in an interview. The president’s treatment of GOP leaders “was embarrassing.” Still, Mr. Lott concedes, “there’s some positive aspects to it. Maybe it’s cleared the deck enough … to get to tax reform, which they must do.”
Democrats are hoping their new working relationship with the president will improve the prospects for codifying President Obama’s protections for "Dreamers," the young undocumented adults brought into the country as children under his “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, known as DACA.
Trump announced this week that he is winding down that program, giving Congress six months to come up with a law that allows these “Dreamers” to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation. The bipartisan DREAM Act – which includes a path to legal status for these young people – has never made it all the way through both houses.
House minority leader Pelosi of California told reporters Thursday that the president has assured her he wants Congress “to get this done,” though she clarified that the legislation will “probably” have to include some border enforcement.
Republicans say no deal will be possible without beefing up the border, and Democratic leaders appear to be open to this, as long as it doesn’t include funding for the president’s “wall” – a difference that might be papered over with semantics.
Another hot-button issue – health care – may also be moving toward a bipartisan solution.
With 2018 enrollment in Obamacare just weeks away and the private exchange markets under great strain, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions this week held two hearings on stabilizing the exchanges. The committee chairman, Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, and ranking member Patty Murray (D) of Washington, are experienced hands in forging bipartisan legislation.
The fact that nearly a third of the Senate showed up for an early morning seminar with insurance commissioners shows a “seriousness of purpose” among senators and “a recognition on both sides of the aisle that we need to do something,” Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine told reporters.
Senator Collins was one of three Republicans to vote against a GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare in July, helping to kill one of the the party’s main legislative goals. Another such attempt is being made, but the narrower, bipartisan fix appears to have a greater chance of passage.
“We stand an excellent chance to see a short-term fix,” says Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, a member of the health committee, speaking to the Monitor.
As for the Republicans’ main goal this fall – overhauling the tax code – a big question mark hangs over that one. Republicans still disagree internally on the details, yet they appear to be looking to pass a tax package without Democratic votes. Will it meet the same fate as Obamacare repeal?
Democrats would like to take part in negotiations, but only under certain conditions. Will Trump invite them in – at the risk of further alienating his own party?
“If we get bipartisan work, people complain. If we don’t get bipartisan work, people complain,” says Senator Perdue, speaking with reporters about the president’s deal with Democrats this week. "The president's trying to lead toward solutions."