A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by Liz Marlantes.

Yes, bipartisanship happens

Why a criminal justice reform package passed Congress this week. 

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump hands a pen to Sen Chuck Grassley, (R) of Iowa, after signing criminal justice reform legislation on Dec. 21, 2018, in Washington.

The Senate’s surprise passage yesterday of a comprehensive criminal justice reform package serves as both heartening evidence that bipartisanship can still prevail in Congress – and a reminder of just how hard it is to get there. 

Given that the bill passed with 87 (out of 100) votes, in some ways what’s most amazing is that its fate had been so uncertain. That’s because Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell – apparently responding to the concerns of a small but powerful group of conservatives – had resisted bringing it to the floor for a vote.

As the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin writes : “Imagine if both the Senate and House Republican leadership over the past couple of years put on the floor legislation that a bipartisan majority, a strong bipartisan majority at that, supported. We’d have had immigration reform back in 2013…. We’d have a bipartisan health-care fix…. We’d probably have had an infrastructure bill as well and small steps on gun safety.”

The major impediment to bipartisan action, she concludes, isn’t “polarization per se” – but leadership that has allowed the polarized extremes to control the process.

In this case, support for the bill was broad enough to overcome the hurdles. Crucially, it had strong backers from both ends of the political spectrum – including the ACLU and the Koch brothers. Fox News’s Sean Hannity supported it. (So did Kanye and the Kardashians.) Most crucially, it had the support of President Trump.

Indeed, Mr. Trump’s role may well have made the difference here. And in many ways, that makes this bill a stark reminder of missed opportunities not just for Congress, but for the president – a glimpse of “what the Trump presidency might have been,” as Vanity Fair’s Eric Lutz puts it . “On the campaign trail, the would-be president promised to work across party lines on issues that would benefit all Americans,” he writes. “But by and large, broadly popular bills that would have scrambled partisan lines and might have guaranteed a second term have not been this president’s purview.”

A quick programming note: The Politics newsletter will be on vacation for the next two weeks. As we approach the end of 2018, we thought we’d leave you with a list of our top five politics stories from the past year: 

  1. A system under strain: Is US democracy showing real cracks?
  2. A life that is worthy: In Plains, Ga., an evangelical politician like no other
  3. How young liberals' moves to Red America may temper political divides
  4. Why Woodward book poses real challenge to White House
  5. What Kavanaugh case means for 'innocent until proven guilty'

Wishing you a holiday season filled with peace and joy. And as always, let us know what you’re thinking at csmonitor@cspolitics.com.

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