WASHINGTON — Suddenly, bipartisanship has broken out on Capitol Hill.
On Iran, Medicare, education and trade, Republicans and Democrats have come together to make deals, and that’s something rarely seen lately.
“It’s great,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said after the Senate followed the House’s lead this past week in overwhelmingly passing a bill overhauling the Medicare payment system for doctors. “There’s just a huge pent-up demand to actually get something done, on both sides.”
The same day as the Medicare vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved legislation empowering Congress to review and possibly reject an emerging Iran nuclear pact. Those breakthroughs were followed two days later by unanimous approval of a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law in the Senate’s education committee, and the announcement of a long-sought bipartisan deal allowing President Barack Obama to negotiate trade accords for Congress’ review.
Congress-watchers are applauding.
“Democracy had a pretty good week, and it’s been a long time,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
But no one’s declaring partisan bickering over, and the moment may not last long, especially as campaigning picks up ahead of next year’s presidential and congressional elections.
Indeed, even as lawmakers sealed deals on some issues, they were gridlocked elsewhere.
Obama, at a news conference Friday, highlighted the contradiction. He hailed “some outbreaks of bipartisanship and common sense in Congress” and then bemoaned the Senate’s delay in approving his nominee for attorney general, federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch.
“There are times where the dysfunction in the Senate just goes too far,” Obama said. “Enough.”
Lynch may get a vote as soon as this coming week. Lawmakers seem to be close to a compromise on a human trafficking bill that has bogged down on a dispute over abortion, and Republican leaders had decided to put off the Lynch vote until the trafficking measure was resolved – a linkage Democrats decried.
That’s the kind of partisan head-butting that often seems more common and is certain to continue in the months ahead in some areas, such as negotiations on a combined House-Senate budget. Republicans in the House and Senate celebrated passing balanced budgets last month, but the nonbinding blueprints were approved over the protests of Democrats and without their votes.
House Democrats also lamented as Republicans passed a repeal of the estate tax this past week, though several other low-profile IRS bills won bipartisan approval. The new Congress got off to an ugly start when lawmakers came perilously close to partially shutting down the Department of Homeland Security because of Republican objections to Obama’s executive actions limiting deportations for millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, though the final vote to fund the department was bipartisan
Yet amid such familiar disputes, lawmakers have also found opportunities to get along.
In addition to the bills advanced this past week, Democrats joined with Republicans earlier in the year to send Obama measures such as a bill authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which the president vetoed, and one to extend a terrorism risk insurance program, which Obama signed.
Grumet attributes the accomplishments in part to old-fashioned dealmaking and an institution-wide desire to claim some achievements.
Republicans who took control of the Senate in January and increased their majority in the House say they have tried to allow Congress to function more openly, with more work done at the committee level and more chances for lawmakers of both parties to offer amendments.
“We’re getting the Senate up and running and back functioning again, and we’re on the cusp of passing some very significant legislation on a bipartisan basis that we can put on the president’s desk,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in an interview.
Democrats are reluctant to give too much credit to the GOP, noting that there were also bipartisan achievements under Democratic control, such as Senate passage of an immigration overhaul in 2013, although it died in the House. Some Democrats said the GOP, and Congress, are benefiting from low expectations after a period of partisan gridlock ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.
“It’s like we set the standard at the idea that there’s never any bipartisanship, so now that there’s some bipartisanship we’re acting like it’s the beginning of a big new era,” said Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Congress’ ability to deliver in a bipartisan fashion will be tested in the weeks ahead. Lawmakers face tough tasks in getting the education and trade bills to Obama. Also, there are deadlines ahead for action on the highway trust fund, the Export-Import bank, the nation’s borrowing limit and the annual spending bills needed to fund the federal government.
There is hope for legislation on cybersecurity, but scant expectations of major legislative achievements beyond the must-do items.
Still, the recent bipartisan legislating has some people believing Republicans and Democrats do remember how to work together.
“Without venturing a prediction, I have high hopes,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”