The brief bipartisan window for this Congress to get anything done is closing soon

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Even in divided government, Republicans and Democrats realize they need each other to accomplish at least a few pieces of legislation to boast about back home when it comes time for reelection.

This year, however, that window for bipartisan action looks smaller than usual.

It can’t really open until the threat of another government shutdown passes, potentially in mid-February. And it is likely to slam shut once the 2020 presidential campaign heats up this summer or special counsel Robert S. Mueller III releases his report on Russian election meddling, whichever comes first.

That gives the 116th Congress — already predicted to be relatively nonproductive — only a few months to act, if that.

At the top of the House Democrats’ bipartisan to-do list are efforts to boost the nation’s infrastructure and lower prescription drug prices. The infrastructure effort, which faces better odds of success, will begin next week with an initial hearing that is expected to include testimony from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.


“We’re going to have to move quickly,” said Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), a senior member of the House panel working on an infrastructure bill.

Lipinski and other so-called Blue Dog Democrats — a group of moderates — sent a letter to Democratic leaders this week stressing urgency. “Our plan of attack must focus on immediate and bipartisan ideas,” they wrote.

Yet the prospects for an infrastructure bill are uncertain. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), who leads the committee overseeing the bill, hasn’t yet released legislation. As of now, his scope is vast: The bill could include repairs to surface transportation, such as roads and bridges; funding for airports, local transit and harbors; and efforts to shore up drinking water supplies and expand broadband. Those ideas will probably need to be narrowed down.

Tentative plans call for the bill to get to the floor in May, according to Democratic officials.

Though President Trump has often mentioned the need for infrastructure improvements, and had held the issue up as one he could work on with Democrats, some are skeptical that Republicans will support a bill they may view as unnecessary new spending. And if Democrats were to seek new taxes to pay for the legislation, Republicans would probably bolt.

Still, both parties have incentives to bolster their bipartisan bona fides.

“There’s this political hurricane going on, but we’re also expected to do work, and we came here to do it,” said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

At the same time, 30 House Democrats, including many elected for the first time last year, represent districts that Trump won in 2016. In two years, those lawmakers will be looking to show their voters some evidence that they were able to compromise.

“There are a lot of freshmen who are pragmatic, bipartisan-oriented, such as myself, and I think there’s a great opportunity for us to do wonderful work,” said Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach). “I want to have a chance to do that.”

Rouda blamed the record-long partial government shutdown for delaying that work. “It’s difficult when all the air in the room is being sucked out by the Trump shutdown,” he said.

Many Republicans and Democrats have also cited prescription drug policy as another area of potential compromise. But that is considered a tougher climb, given the powerhouse lobbying influence of the drug industry and the sharp divisions between the parties on how to address the issue. There is no timeline yet for prescription drug legislation, although several committees have plans to hold hearings on the issue or already have.

Another, more modest, effort could be a bill to help veterans. House leaders plan to vote next week on a bipartisan effort to require Veterans Affairs facilities to provide on-site care or a stipend for childcare while a veteran is at appointments.

The race to actually vote on and pass something more significant with bipartisan support can’t really begin until after Feb. 15, the next deadline to avoid another government shutdown.

But they won’t have much time. The 2020 election is quickly going to cast its shadow on Capitol Hill. The crowded Democratic field of lawmakers — mostly senators — looking to run for president is expected to have a chilling effect. Presidential hopefuls want to energize their base, meaning they may be less likely to work with Republicans on high-profile legislation.

The 2020 Senate contests will have the same effect. All but two of the Democrats up for reelection are from states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, meaning they are more likely to lean on their base than seek out independents or Republicans. And because all but two of the Republicans are from states that Trump won, they are less likely to do anything that can be considered a break from the White House and risk a tweet from Trump.

“We will see the least productive Congress in history because [Democrats] are already legislating in a way to impact the 2020 election,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.). “And we do control the Senate and we do have the White House, meaning all these nonsense messaging bills are never going to get signed into law.”

Democrats say that won’t stop them from trying.

“House Democrats are committed to a bold, forward-looking agenda that will be transparent, bipartisan and unifying for the Congress and the country,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “The American people gave us a mandate to deliver results in their lives, and Democrats will not be distracted from our robust legislative schedule for this Congress.”

The prospects of bipartisan legislation were already slim this year, given the fact that Democrats regained control of the House, in part, on the promise to block Trump’s legislative priorities and investigate his administration. But divided governments have sometimes led to bipartisan accomplishments, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

The unpredictability of the White House could lend itself to working outside of the traditional framework of election-year politics.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York pointed to the bipartisan passage of a criminal justice reform bill in late 2018.

“If we can come together around criminal justice reform,” he said, “and bring together the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, the ACLU and the Koch brothers, we can work together in a bipartisan way to protect people with preexisting conditions and infrastructure.”

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