Congress, at last, makes some bipartisan inroads

Republican leaders leave behind their conservative flank to reach compromises with Democrats

On a Wednesday afternoon in early March, House Speaker John A. Boehner made the short walk from his second-floor office in the Capitol to the one occupied by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi down the hall.

It had been a busy week. Congress narrowly averted a shutdown of the Homeland Security Department and lawmakers were locked in tough budget negotiations. Partisan tensions were still boiling over from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress, at which he repudiated President Obama’s negotiations aimed at curtailing Iran's nuclear program.

Boehner, though, had another topic on his mind: He wanted to cut a deal with Pelosi to put an end to the annual crisis of looming pay cuts to doctors who treat Medicare patients.

Eleven minutes later, the Ohio Republican walked out with the framework for an accord that was approved overwhelmingly by the Senate late Tuesday — a “milestone,” as Obama called it — setting an optimistic new tone for Congress. Boehner, Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other leaders will even sit down together Thursday for a bipartisan bill-signing ceremony, something not seen on Capitol Hill for quite some time.

After a rocky start to its stewardship of the House and Senate, the Republican majority is rounding the first 100 days of the new Congress with notable — and rare — bipartisan accomplishments.

Compromises over the doctors’ pay issue, funding for Homeland Security and a mechanism for Congress to review Obama’s deal with Iran have emerged as sizable agreements for a legislative body more famous for fighting than cooperating.

Could the do-nothing Congress be poised to become the do-something one?

“This shows, in spite of all of our problems, things can get done when both parties have an interest in getting something done,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, who is an expert on Congress and coauthor of “The Broken Branch.” “God knows, we need some policy stability on things like this.”

As if to punctuate the turn of events, the Senate hosted a bipartisan luncheon Wednesday, a rare breaking of bread between Republicans and Democrats as leaders tried to foster goodwill.

Of course, not everyone is convinced that Washington has turned over a new leaf.

Asked whether the Iran bill and Medicare agreement showed a new trend in Congress toward bipartisanship, Deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz pointed to the stalled confirmation of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch as a benchmark of a different sort.

“Today marks a new milestone for the delay in the attorney general of the United States,” he said. “Loretta Lynch has now waited twice as long on the Senate floor for a vote than the seven most recent attorney generals combined.”

And the recent victories came after three months of familiar gridlock that had threatened to leave the first GOP-led Congress in eight years with little to show for its efforts since taking control in January.

“We all remember the lofty promises made by the Republican leader and his party before they assumed power,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the marking of the first 100 days this week.

The first big legislative lift, passage of a bill to expedite the Keystone XL pipeline, fizzled after Obama’s veto.

More problematic was the immediate resumption of the kind of shutdown politics that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had vowed to avoid.

A February standoff threatened to shut the Homeland Security Department as conservative Republicans protested Obama’s immigration actions. It was averted only at the 11th hour.

Internal party divisions also risked derailing passage of a Republican budget.

But looking ahead, the results of Boehner’s meeting with Pelosi may provide a road map for future crisis points, if Republican leaders are willing to leave their conservative flank behind and Democrats reach across the aisle to compromise.

“God, I hope so,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who helped broker the Iran bill with Foreign Relations Committee leaders. “Look, we have a long way to go.”

Highway funds, which run out at the end of next month, provide the next big opportunity for an agreement that could prevent work stoppage on road projects important to states across the nation.

Also ripe for bipartisan workmanship are bills to fast-track Obama’s trade agenda, reauthorize the Export-Import Bank and continue surveillance programs that expire this spring and summer.

To be sure, continued comity will not be easy. Republicans remain unwilling to be seen as compromising with the president, and Boehner and McConnell continue to face deep distrust for their deal-making from within their conservative ranks.

On Monday, the Senate confirmed the first Obama judicial nominee since the GOP took the majority. Democrats note they had approved 17 of President George W. Bush’s judicial picks by this time during their first year in the majority in 2007.

The Medicare bill, which involved weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations before Boehner and Pelosi reached that afternoon deal, ran into mostly Republican opposition. Among those voting no were Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), both of whom are running for president. (A third presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an ophthalmologist, voted yes.)

Mann, the congressional scholar whose more recent book on Congress is titled, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” noted that politics are transactional.

Rather than heralding a new era, he said, the recent deals showed that both parties had incentives to compromise.

And that, he said, “will not happen very often.”

Twitter: @LisaMascaro


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4:57 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.

The story was originally published at 1:38 p.m.