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The great struggle of getting anything done when partisanship reigns

July 21, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Congress these days has an obvious theme: more blame than legislation. Congressional Republicans have taken a sharply partisan route in their health care reform efforts, with multiple failed and contentious attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. How did we end up with such an extreme partisan divide? Lisa Desjardins looks back.

HARI SREENIVASAN: From the White House to Capitol Hill.

For seven months, congressional Republicans have taken a sharply partisan route on health care. They have made several attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which have failed. But why did Republicans go partisan in the first place?

It’s part of a cultural shift in Congress years in the making for both parties.

Our Lisa Desjardins explains.

LISA DESJARDINS: Congress these days has an obvious theme.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, I-Vt.: I should think that every Republican should be embarrassed.

MAN: Our Democratic friends are trying to make it more difficult for President Trump to do his job.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER,  D-N.Y., Minority Leader: We urge our Republican colleagues to change their tune.

LISA DESJARDINS: More blame than legislation on the floor. Veteran GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine has long been considered one of its most bipartisan members, but she admits it’s becoming harder.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: We are in a time of hyper-partisanship that is unlike any other that I have seen in my time in the Senate.

LISA DESJARDINS: Some examples this year? Republicans going it alone on health care, with a partisan House vote and a Republican-only closed-door process in the Senate, Democrats forcing symbolic late-night sessions and boycotting committee hearings, slowing the legislative process to a near stop.

And this month, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed Democrats for his decision to postpone the Senate’s August recess.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-K.y., Majority Leader: Due to this unprecedented level of obstruction that we have been experiencing, we will be in session the first two weeks of August.

LISA DESJARDINS: All just five weeks after this: a gunman opening fire on a Republican baseball practice, leaving House Majority Whip Steve Scalise initially in critical condition, and still recovering.

The attack brought a chorus of calls for bipartisanship.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., House Minority Leader: We are not one caucus or the other in this House today.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: We are united.

LISA DESJARDINS: Later that day, the managers of the Republican and Democratic teams urged an end to the sharp divide.

REP. JOE BARTON, R-Texas: We have an R or a D by our name, but our title — our title is United States representative.

LISA DESJARDINS: We caught up with Representatives Joe Barton and Mike Doyle again, and asked if things have changed.

REP. MIKE DOYLE, D-Pa.: There’s no cure for this. And it’s not just our responsibility. Bipartisanship either gets fanned or, you know, encouraged by outside forces, too.

LISA DESJARDINS: But both say too many members get attention now with sharp words.

REP. JOE BARTON: At the end of every two years, do you want to go home and say, man, I gave a heck of a press conference, or do you want to put something else on your wall, that you have got a bill signed into law?

LISA DESJARDINS: Barton admits he was once a young bomb thrower, and accepts some blame for his party.

REP. JOE BARTON: When I got elected, I joined the Gingrich group. So I was a part of the problem at the time.

LISA DESJARDINS: In the 1994 Republican Revolution, then-new Speaker Gingrich made partisan battles a central strategy. Years later, in 2013, Democrats upped the partisan ante, changing Senate rules to push through some nominees with no Republican votes.

Of course, partisanship, even partisanship, is as old as Congress itself, from duels, to a near fatal beating inside the Senate chamber, to this staircase outside the House chamber, where you can still see what is said to be blood stains from where a newspaper reporter shot a former member of Congress in 1890.

But divide can have a purpose, says Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: I don’t think partisanship in and of itself is a bad thing. The challenge is when that alone is what prevents people from working together to do other things.

LISA DESJARDINS: Part of the trouble, fewer moderates. Data from The Cook Political Report shows that, 20 years ago, more than a third of all House districts were moderate, voting similarly to the nation as a whole. But, since then, House districts have become more partisan, red or blue, and the number of moderate or swing seats has fallen by half.

AMY WALTER: And they have all been replaced by ideologues either on the left or the right.

LISA DESJARDINS: One reason, special interest groups on the left and the right are spending record amounts of money in ads, and increasingly scoring lawmakers’ votes on sometimes narrow issues.

Again, Susan Collins:

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Unfortunately, there’s a lot of pressure from outside special interest groups to toe the party line. They want 100 percent fidelity, 100 percent of the time, to 100 percent of their views. And, if you deviate, you are going to feel the consequences.

LISA DESJARDINS: All this underscores how a major issue like health care remains unresolved, and it sets up a great struggle. To get anything done, Republicans in power may soon have to work with Democrats.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins.