Bipartisanship has left the House of Representatives, and virtually every vote shows this, with the blue House majority barely edging the Republicans by a handful of votes. The House is where the extreme wing and the extreme left wing dwell, more so than the Senate, so this house of Congress does not meet in the middle. Over on the Senate side, members often speak of “common ground” more often than they find it. In early 2021, seven Senate Republicans broke away and voted to convict Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial. In the months that followed, more signs of true bipartisanship arose, in small groups and factions, culminating in the major infrastructure win this summer. On both sides of 50–50, senators seemed to awaken to the 60-vote filibuster rule’s reality. To get anything passed and done, they really have no choice but to seek and achieve bipartisanship. In this Congress Report, congressional expert and Washington journalist Jamie Stiehm, discusses the recent and rare show of bipartisanship on the impactful infrastructure bill.

Bipartisanship, anyone?

Like tennis, bipartisanship in Congress takes skill, finesse, and practice.

Long years went by without lawmakers practicing this skill seriously—one that can be both exhausting and rewarding. Clearly, it can’t be done alone. It takes long hours in the presence of your political opponents across the net.

So, what could bring the surprise revival of bipartisanship to the Senate floor this summer?

In a word, infrastructure. Something concrete for a common good shared by all, something only government can do. Simply put, it makes common sense to connect and rebuild the nation in a multitude of ways.

Pressing needs resulted in a study of bipartisanship in a deeply divided 50–50 Senate. The rare agreement was reached not by party leaders, but by self-chosen teams from both sides of the aisle. Significantly, even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell supported them, though he did not direct their discussions.

The elements were straightforward. America’s crumbling roads, bridges, railways, and leaded water pipes need repair or replacement in all fifty states. In recent years, it’s become clear shoreline erosion and flood damage is rising. Broadband access was also added to the package as essential infrastructure for this century.

When the Senate voted 69–30 to pass the huge and historic infrastructure package worth $1.2 trillion in August, twenty moderate senators were delighted at the breakthrough they had opened in the party wall with secret meetings behind the scenes.

The Bipartisan Group of Twenty Senators: High Noon

Led by a retiring Republican, Rob Portman of Ohio, and a freshman Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the group of twenty gradually built out from the center and crafted a version all agreed on, more or less. The odd pair stepped up to a heavy challenge perhaps because they had little to lose at the end—or beginning—of their Senate careers.

The group consisted of one fifth of the Senate, with some seasoned players, such as Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin (D-West Va.) Manchin, as the most conservative Democrat, was considered critical to passage. Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy were active negotiators. Cassidy voted to convict President Trump in his second impeachment trial, for instigating the January 6 Capitol riot. Some friendships warmed along the way.

Senator Chris Carper (D-Del.) called the moment “high noon” on the floor.

Renewing infrastructure was high on President Biden’s list of promises, declaring it would create a host of good-paying jobs. When he expressed faith in bipartisanship in his first hundred days, some thought he was dreaming of the old days in the Senate, where he served for thirty-five years. But he was not wrong.

The twenty senators—ten Democrats and ten Republicans—met regularly to give and take, bargain, and compromise on a bill, piece by piece, each element under hard scrutiny. The Democratic proposed to pay for it by raising taxes on businesses. That idea was thrown out by Republicans.

In the end, nobody could deny 69–30 was a solid victory, with nineteen Republicans joining all fifty Democrats in a filibuster-proof win. In the flurry of amendments, the arch-conservative Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and newcomer Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) joined to co-sponsor an amendment on designating a highway connecting their Southern states as an interstate. They earned applause on the floor for the small bipartisan miracle.

Cruz told me later the unlikely partners had discussed the matter in the Commerce committee. “It was nice to see a moment across the ideological spectrum,” the senator said.

Indeed, one could observe a lighter mood in general on the floor. There were more informal exchanges among senators than usual, standing in friendly clusters. They looked pleased they were actually getting something done.

A Freshman Senator Throws a Twist Before the Vote

However, the exception was one freshman Republican, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, who objected so vigorously to the package that he put a thirty-hour hold on it on a summer Saturday. In a floor speech, he warned it was a prelude to the Democratic “multitrillion dollar march to socialism.” In the old days, a freshman senator did not stop the wheels of major legislation, but that is the right of every senator.

Hagerty’s words were pointed at a second infrastructure bill moving its way toward the Senate. In fact, it is the second half of the current political equation. Still pending is a “soft” infrastructure bill with a whopping $3.5 trillion price tag. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, is its best friend on the Hill and Biden backs it. “Transformative,” Pelosi said, in strengthening and widening the social safety net.

The most important components, dawning on the horizon, are ambitious climate crisis measures and federal childcare aid—also known as infrastructure for women. The pandemic has hit women working at home especially hard.

This bill will not be bipartisan when and if the Senate picks it up. Not one Republican will vote for it. The best hope Democrats have of passing it is to go through the “reconciliation” budget process, which requires only fifty votes (since Vice President Harrison would break a tie.) But they need all fifty, and so far Manchin and Sinema have expressed reservations.

Pelosi, for her part, has a strategy that keeps the House in the game. She says the House will not vote on either infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the reconciliation bill first. With tight majorities in her caucus and the Senate, Democrats don’t have a vote to lose.

A Brief Look at How Bipartisanship Fared in Recent Years

Over the rough patches of the 21st century, Congress had clearly fallen out of practice in working across party lines. The greatest practitioner of bipartisanship, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) died in 2009. Partisan acrimony, hardened from Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) bombastic style as House Speaker in the ‘90s, gradually deepened to a level seldom seen since the Civil War broke out, experts said.

Obamacare passed in 2010 without a single Republican vote. The 2017 massive tax cut for corporations (from 35 percent to 21 percent), President Trump’s major legislative victory, passed with no Democratic votes in the Senate. Trump’s three Supreme Court nominations also drove a bitter wedge between senators. Each was narrowly approved by a majority vote, the result likely causing a Republican lock on the Supreme Court for generations. Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination was jammed through the Senate just days before the November 2020 election.

An angry, sour mood permeated both chambers for a decade, worsening after the 2010 Tea Party election, which swept firebrands into the House. Senate party leaders Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) were always crossing verbal swords. President Obama lost close votes, on immigration and gun control.

When Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) became the Senate Democratic leader in 2016, the tone improved slightly but the partisan stalemate did not. During President Trump’s term, all pretense of reaching out to achieve “comity” and bipartisanship went the way of no return, given his steady stream of insults and tweets. The gathering storm over both houses of Congress crested in the January 6, 2021, mob attack on the Capitol, while Congress was certifying the presidential election results. Lawmakers barely escaped violence, but 140 Capitol and Metropolitan D.C. police were injured in the melee over hours of one-on-one “medieval” fighting.

Of course, the September 11 terrorist attacks produced a short burst of unity. The January 6 attack only divided the House more and produced Trump’s second impeachment trial. We have an even more uncivil war in the House, with only two Republicans willing to serve on a January 6 select committee. (Pelosi rejected two Republicans proposed by Republican leader Kevin McCarthy; one was Ohioan Jim Jordon.)

Except for Covid-19 and other emergency relief bills, bipartisanship went the way of the American bison.

Yet the Senate atmosphere improved after the January 6 attack and Biden’s swearing-in as president. It helps that he knows and respects the Senate, seeking out members of both parties to visit the White House. For now, the Senate center is holding with the most contentious voices softer, from on the sidelines. Standing in the middle, former governors Manchin and Romney are seen and respected as sensible by both sides. They were ideal to help lead to a new clearing. Let’s see how long their brand of bipartisan good will lasts.

If this were a game of tennis: the Senate just won the first set.

Document Citation
Stiehm, J. (2015). A surprise revival of bipartisanship. CQ Congress collection (web site).
Document ID: cqelcong-2240-117222-2988458
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