After a year of operating on a strict party-line basis, lawmakers returning to Washington this week will face a new demand: bipartisanship. Nothing on Congress’s long to-do list – from funding the government to avoiding a default on the national debt to finding a legal solution for immigrant “Dreamers” – can be accomplished without winning votes from across the aisle.
But after such a bruising and divisive year, that may be easier said than done. With midterm elections coming up, the Democratic base is intent on opposing President Trump and Democratic leaders may be reluctant to give him any wins. For their part, Republicans already have a big accomplishment to tout – a $1.5 trillion tax cut – and may decide that, politically, they don't need to go for a serious bipartisan effort on something big like infrastructure.
“I think the parties can pivot. The question is, will they?” says Ross Baker, a longtime observer of the Senate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “There are a lot of hard feelings [among Democrats] from both the attempt to repeal Obamacare and from tax reform. The feeling of exclusion doesn’t promote a disposition to be cooperative.”
Professor Baker says it’s not unlike how Republicans felt after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed on a party-line Democratic vote early in the Obama administration. In the aftermath, the GOP focused single-mindedly on – as then-Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky put it – making President Obama a one-term president. Republicans were rewarded for their staunch opposition, retaking the House in the 2010 midterms.
Simple math dictates that the parties will have to work together, at least on urgent, must-pass legislation such as spending bills, avoiding a default on the national debt, reauthorizing funding for children’s health care, and renewing a key national-security provision.
Unlike last year, when Republicans used special rules to push through a Supreme Court nominee, federal judges, and a major tax cut with just a majority vote, everything on the upcoming agenda will require clearing a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
That gives Democrats a big say in what happens – particularly with Wednesday’s swearing in of Sen. Doug Jones (D) of Alabama, which reduced the GOP to 51 seats, a razor-thin majority. Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota was also sworn in, replacing Sen. Al Franken (D), who resigned over sexual harassment allegations.
A (small) window of opportunity
Also on Wednesday, congressional leaders from both parties met at the Capitol with senior Trump administration officials to discuss budget and other issues. The federal government is set to run out of money at midnight on Jan. 19 and Democrats want to use that as an opportunity to strike a deal for children whose parents brought them to this country illegally, known as “Dreamers.” Mr. Trump is ending the Obama-era program that allowed them to stay and work legally in the United States.
Democrats have an advantage going into these negotiations and they should use it to get concessions on issues such as the Dreamers, says Democratic strategist Jim Manley.
Resolving the issue of young immigrants is one area where both parties have been cautiously optimistic that they can reach agreement – but not if it means paying for Trump’s wall, Democrats say. Latinos are pushing Democratic leaders to force a government shut-down over the program, if need be. Mr. Manley believes Republicans would be blamed for a shutdown, because they hold all the levers of power. Given the president’s low approval ratings, “there’s no Democrat I’m aware of who’s afraid of the president at this moment in time,” says Manley.
Hill Republicans argue that if Democrats shut down the government in a bid to protect children of illegal immigrants, that will not play well across the country – despite sympathy for their plight.
The window of opportunity – and the will to cooperate – is short, given the high-stakes election year, lawmakers and observers say. Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, one of the leaders of the moderate “Tuesday Group” of Republicans in the House, gives Congress between now and perhaps April to get anything done. “We’ll be moving into campaign mode fairly quickly,” he says.
Stabilizing health care
Beyond the deadline-driven items are extras, such as stabilizing the ACA now that tax reform has eliminated the individual insurance mandate. And then there’s infrastructure, which the White House wants to tackle this year. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s keen interest in entitlement reform, which he has since narrowed down to welfare reform, appears to have no traction in the Senate, given the tight margin.
When the president meets with Republican leaders at Camp David this weekend, health care is expected to be on the agenda, says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine. In negotiations over the GOP tax plan, which Senator Collins eventually supported, she was promised a vote and presidential backing on two bipartisan health-care measures – one to fund high-risk pools that she co-sponsored with Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, and the other to help subsidize insurance payments to low-income Americans under the ACA.
The question has been whether these bills will get through the House – or even be taken up by Speaker Ryan – given some members’ staunch opposition to a GOP “rescue” of Obamacare. But Collins says she has talked with the speaker and is “optimistic” about the prospect of the bills in the House. She’s counting on presidential help, and says both bills need to pass in order to counter rising premiums expected from the elimination of the individual mandate.
Getting rid of the individual mandate was “good politics,” but Republicans can’t let a “complete disaster” hit the insurance exchanges, says Republican strategist John Feehery. Health care is still the No. 1 issue for many Americans, and Congress needs to stabilize the exchanges “so they can make the rates not go up for everybody else.”
As for infrastructure, that’s an election calculation, says Mr. Feehery. Do Democrats feel they need a deal now? They might, if the tax cut plays better than expected, the economy surges, and Democrats feel they need a win to take home to voters.
On the other hand, “if the tax cut’s a real dud, and they’re on the offense, they probably won’t need to find ways to cooperate with the president.”
And reaching a deal on infrastructure, despite its broad appeal to lawmakers of both stripes, is not as easy as one might think. Democrats view it as a government responsibility and expense, while Trump and many Republicans believe a relatively modest amount of federal money can leverage mostly private investment.
If the White House is serious about a deal this year, they will have to make a serious offer to Democrats that includes a permanent funding mechanism, such as an increase in the gas tax or a mileage tax, and a tonnage tax for ports, along with tolls for roads, says former Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, who was once Senate majority leader.
“Leaders have to have the attitude that they can find a way to work together for the good of the country, and that was not the case in 2017,” he says. “Republicans were on a mission to get done what they promised, and Democrats completely resisted. If both don’t show some give, it could be an ugly year.”
On the other hand, he says, if the two parties could strike an infrastructure deal, “there will be plenty of credit for everybody.”