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Gwen’s Take: Who knew? Bipartisanship isn’t dead

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Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  August 1, 2014 at 10:58 AM EST
Clockwise: Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

Clockwise: Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

This space is often taken up with doom and gloom, as we watch Washington and the nation split itself into irrevocable ideological halves.

We watched it play out again this week on Capitol Hill, when Republicans in the House voted to sue the president one day, and then collapsed on themselves the next day in a partisan and intra-party fight over immigration reform.

It’s never pretty when elected officials fight. Entertaining, yes; pretty, no.

But I’m here to tell you all is not lost. We saw why this week in a trio of interviews on the PBS NewsHour. Three nights in a row, we witnessed actual congressional bipartisanship.

That is to say, members of Congress appeared side-by-side to talk about consequential issues, and to agree – and even disagree – in a somewhat cheerful fashion.

Kudos to Senators Bernie Sanders, Claire McCaskill, Kelly Ayotte, Rand Paul, Cory Booker and Rep. Jeff Miller for not being afraid to agree – in public.

The first example came when Sanders and Miller – chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees, respectively – told my colleague Judy Woodruff that they’d come up with a plan to force change at the troubled Veterans Administration.

“Neither one of us believe that you can fix the culture from within by just throwing money and people at the system,” said Miller, a Republican from Florida.

“It really would be an obscenity to go home in August and not address this issue,” said Sanders, an Independent from Vermont.

“What I think Congressman Miller and I understood is that failure, in this sense, wasn’t an option,” Sanders added. “It would be reprehensible.”

That same bipartisan cheer marked my interview with McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, and Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire. Although perfectly clear about their ideological differences, they banded together with six other senators to push colleges to address sexual assaults on campus.

“If we can’t set aside partisan politics for this issue,” McCaskill said, “then we are really without hope.”

By far the jolliest duo of the week were Paul and Booker, who joshed with each other before the interview began about their disparate heights, their workout regimens and – on Twitter – about each being named one of Capitol Hill’s “most beautiful” by a Washington newspaper.

Their common ground: sentencing reform. Each believes too many people are in prison for too long, and that they should get their voting rights back after they are released.

“I don’t think it’s a left or right issue,” Paul said. ”I want people to get back to work. I want people to get back to voting.”

Paul said he has campaigned for Booker’s opponent in the past, and could do it again. But the two can be polite in their opposition.

“We’re all tired of a Washington that has these partisan camps where nothing gets done,” Booker said. He said he came to the capital in the first place to create “uncommon coalitions.”

“These are urgencies that, no matter what your party, should weigh upon your consciences,” Booker added.

These were nice moments. Lawmakers of opposite parties seldom agree to appear on television together anymore. And members of the Senate hesitate to appear with members of the House. But here was a breath of fresh air.

The legislation these lawmakers are championing may or may not become law. It takes a lot more than two to tango. But even if they do not, the glimmers of bipartisan hope felt nice for a change.


Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Sen. Bernie Sanders as an Independent from Maine. He is from Vermont.