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Senate Revives Lawmaking

Members Move Past Gridlock to Work Together to Produce Bipartisan Legislation as Elections Loom

Don’t call it a comeback, or even a detente, but a strange thing is happening in the Senate: Democrats and Republicans are working together to pass legislation.

While President Barack Obama has railed on the trail against a “do-nothing” Congress and House Republicans have struggled to unite around major legislation, the Senate has recently passed sweeping bills on a bipartisan basis. From a two-year transportation bill to U.S. Postal Service reform to the Violence Against Women Act, the Senate has flipped convention on its head by becoming the chamber that works.

And it’s not going without notice.

“Don’t act so surprised!” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) teased when asked about the recent legislative momentum in his chamber. “How about that?”

The Congressional humor from the No. 2 Senate Democrat, however, only underscored his more serious point: that after more than a year of gridlock, taking the government to the brink of shutdown and the nation close to default, lawmakers are finding their groove and enjoying doing what they were elected to do.

“These bills have been massive, bipartisan bills,” Durbin said. “I have to tell you: There is a growing appetite on both sides of the aisle to get things done. It has been so frustrating to watch things just grind to a halt, with threats of government shutdown, shutting down the economy over the debt ceiling. A lot of us are just fed up with it and looking for ways to pursue some legislative goals we can reach.”

Of course, Democrats have incentive to prove that they can legislate: They are in an uphill battle to maintain the majority in the Senate. More than two-thirds of the Senate seats being contested in this election cycle are held by Democrats or by Independents who caucus with Democrats.

But Republicans have something to prove, too. The Senate GOP is a more politically seasoned Conference than its House counterpart. And Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has made no bones about the fact that he’d like to be Majority Leader. After months of Republicans being painted as obstructionists, some suggest it helps the cause for them to show they can be adults. And a class of establishment GOP lawmakers expressed the same concerns Durbin did.

“It is simply a matter of Senators saying, ‘Look, we’re grown-ups. We have serious work to do. We’d like to get some results,’” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who left leadership this year, saying he wanted to pursue more legislative opportunity. “We’re not just going to blame it on the leaders. There’s no excuse blaming it on the leaders. We’re going to take it into our own hands and get to work.”

But Alexander also shed a bit more light on the inside-the-Beltway politics of the Senate’s newfound productivity, an acknowledgement that today’s obstructionist minority can be tomorrow’s slight and pressed majority.

“Republicans are very much aware that there’s a chance that we’ll be in charge next year,” Alexander said. “And we may have 51 votes or the Democrats may have 51 votes, so we’re kind of stuck with each other, and we need to figure out how to make the place work because we have serious issues that need to be resolved.”

Since mid-March, the Senate has passed a two-year $109 billion transportation bill with 74 votes, a postal reform bill with 62 votes and a reauthorization of the expiring Violence Against Women Act with 68 votes. Multiple sources indicated that when the Senate comes back from recess next week, lawmakers will take a serious shot at a student loan bill.

On Friday, Alexander and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post offering procedural reform that would limit gridlock and create a more open amendment process — often a top lamentation from Senators in the minority.

“If the minority members would allow the majority leader to bring a bill to the floor for a vote without the 60-vote process, the legislation would be open to all relevant amendments but not to non-relevant amendments,” the Senators wrote.

The proposal reflects how the Senate approved the postal bill last week.

It’s unclear, though, how much longer this era of good feelings can last with an intensifying general election.

Though some sources indicated Republicans have had an easier time uniting around recent bills because of the emergence of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as their presumptive nominee, others pointed to the relatively noncontroversial nature of the bills that passed.

McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have committed to a regular-order appropriations process, but even that isn’t without its complications. House Republicans are seeking to further reduce spending.

There is also a host of expiring tax cuts at the end of the year, as well as a looming sequester that will start automatically cutting defense and domestic programs in January.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) isn’t convinced the bipartisan trend will continue.

“I hope we can make progress on some of the bipartisan legislation, but I think as the year goes on, you’ll see more and more of these purely political efforts, and that’s too bad,” he said.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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