Bipartisanship Has Few Fans

Posted January 29, 2010 at 6:02pm

Congressional bipartisanship had a death throe last month in the South Georgia backwoods. While most House Democrats were huddled in the Capitol Visitor Center for their annual issues conference, a handful of fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats snuck off to hunt quail with Republican colleagues on land owned by Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.).

“It’s always a good opportunity to get guys from different sides of the aisle to build relationships. But other than that, it’s private,— said Republican Rep. Bill Shuster (Pa.), who made the trip. Democrats in attendance were similarly reluctant to discuss the details.

And who could blame them?

Even as President Barack Obama renews his appeals for cross-aisle cooperation, partisan acrimony reigns at record levels and leaders in both parties are showing little inclination to shift course. Republicans charge the majority with shutting them out as it seeks to muscle through an extremist agenda. Democrats countercharge the minority with obstructionism for political gain.

In fact, Democratic leaders appear weary of looking for bipartisanship, particularly in the hyper-partisan Senate, where Republicans have attempted to block almost every piece of major legislation that the chamber has considered.

“When you’ve asked this young lady out to the prom twice and she’s said no, it really is a leap of faith to ask a third time, but on behalf of the president, we will,— Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said last week.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) echoed the sentiment, insisting House Democrats would try to find areas of agreement with Republicans while forging ahead if the GOP declines to engage. “If we can’t find a bipartisan way to do it, we are not going to say, ‘Well, if it is not bipartisan, we are not going to do it.’— she told reporters last week. “We are going to do what we believe.—

Obama is trying to lead the charge. He called for renewed bipartisan engagement last week in his State of the Union address, pledging to hold monthly meetings with the leadership of both parties. And he followed up on Friday by trekking to Baltimore to make an appearance at the House Republicans’ annual retreat.

The president used his prepared remarks to outline areas where the parties can find common ground. But the subsequent 65-minute question-and-answer session with GOP Members quickly turned feisty.

Republican leaders made clear in the aftermath that they remain unhappy with Obama’s agenda and what they view as false promises of bipartisanship — and they took fresh aim at their Democratic counterparts for what they framed as an effort to strong-arm them out of the policymaking process. Responding, Pelosi’s office highlighted Republican-sponsored bills that cleared the chamber last year and noted that the Speaker is set to meet with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) next week. The agenda for that meeting was not clear Friday evening.

The good news for those advocating better interparty coordination is that things could hardly get worse. Last year, for example, Senate Democrats set a record for party unity, according to CQ’s 57th annual study of partisanship in Congress, as 72 percent of all votes in the chamber pit the majority of one party against the majority of the other.

That dynamic could shift this year after Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate special election dashed the Democrats’ supermajority.

Nevertheless, Senate Democrats don’t hold out much hope for peeling off one or two Republicans on major initiatives this year, given their past experiences have been taxing and often fruitless.

During last year’s economic stimulus debate, the cost of securing three GOP votes was trimming more than $100 billion from the bill. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) spent nearly three months negotiating with a group of three Republicans on a health care bill, but only garnered one of their votes in committee ­— that of centrist Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). No Republicans supported the bill on the floor, however.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he has not seen much outreach from the majority. “There has not been any yet. Zero, zippo,— McCain said.

Of course, Senate Republicans feel like they have a winning strategy, given Brown’s upset in the Democratic state of Massachusetts, and Senators said the GOP leadership has dissuaded its Members from working with Democrats.

Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) last year acknowledged that his leadership attempted to sow doubts in his mind about working with Baucus on health care. Grassley eventually walked away from those talks without supporting anything.

In an interview with liberal bloggers last month, party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) said he came under “tremendous— pressure from his then-GOP leaders “not to participate— in the 2009 economic stimulus talks. Specter, then a Republican, joined Snowe and Collins in casting the three GOP votes in favor of the package.

Asked last week whether he thought bipartisanship was still possible in that environment, Specter said, “I think it’s hard, but I think we have to try.—

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also acknowledged last week that his leadership discourages cooperation with Democrats, but he said it “depends on what the issue is.—

Corker said he does see a path forward on a financial regulatory bill that could be bipartisan, given Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) “serious attempt to reach out and cause this financial [regulations] bill to be bipartisan.—

Another Senate Democratic aide said it has become de rigueur for whoever is in the minority to do whatever they can to deny the party in charge legislative accomplishments.

“Whoever is in the majority wants bipartisanship … because they get credit,— the aide said. “It’s in the minority party’s interest to stop their Members from peeling off.—

However, Democrats have also appeared to discourage Republicans from working with them as well.

After the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Baucus courted Snowe for months on health care, Reid decided to pursue a legislative strategy that depended on all 60 Members of the Democratic Conference for passage. That strategy turned out to be a mistake when Brown gave the Republicans a 41st Senator and the ability to filibuster any health care conference report.

And many liberals see bipartisanship as futile, given what they see as the GOP’s refusal to entertain Democratic ideas.

“Deregulation, tax cuts, that’s their answer to everything,— Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. “So if bipartisanship means we start doing deregulation and tax cuts, the answer’s no, we can’t work with them on that. For eight years, as Obama said, for eight years, they tried that. It didn’t work. We’ve got to try other things.—

While many lawmakers appear ready to throw in the towel on bipartisanship, there’s a small, but willing, group of centrists who would like to keep coordination in play.

“The category I fall in is, ‘Hey, we are here, we are comfortable working across the aisle, use us to help us develop policy,— said Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), who joined the bipartisan hunting trip last month. “But we can’t make that call. The leaders of the party have to make that call.—

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.