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Optimism About the 113th Congress

Several signs hint at an opportunity for lawmakers to move past recent partisan impasse

Of all things, I am actually getting modestly hopeful that we might have a productive 113th Congress. Of course, our basis of comparison, the 112th, sets the bar absurdly low.

To be sure, the House is more polarized than the past one, the Senate has a more robust group of conservatives in the mold of South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seems to have brushed off his party’s disastrous Senate results and doubled down on his obstructionist approach.

But I also see several signs that the rethinking going on in the Republican Party is meaningful and real. It seems clear to me that Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has integrated the twin reality that President Barack Obama won re-election handily and that the GOP strategy of voting as a parliamentary minority — united in opposition to everything coming from the White House — is a losing one for the future.

It may even be the case that this time Boehner will have his leadership team working with him to find a resolution to the fiscal impasse. If that happens, and they can convince half or more of their conference that a balanced plan, including tax increases and significant cutbacks in the growth of major entitlements, is the best way out, we can have a deal. And that deal can probably include an increase in the top marginal rate, at least for those making more than $500,000.

This is not likely to happen in the next few weeks; indeed, it may not happen until Dec. 31, or maybe even after Jan. 1. It will almost certainly require initial action by the Senate, with the “gang of eight” supplemented by 30 more senators and with the support of much of the business community putting together a new budget that would include reconciliation instructions to do tax reform with a specific revenue target, to find a new formula for cost-of-living adjustments in several entitlements, and to come up with a better path than sequestration for reducing discretionary spending.

Also crucial is inclusion of a lengthy extension of the debt ceiling, along with a plan to have the debt ceiling increased automatically when a budget resolution passes. It will likely take the president negotiating like Ronald Reagan, standing firm on his tax commitment until the very end, to give Boehner the rationale to go to his troops and get them to sign on to a deal.

That kind of deal would be great, to get past the deeply destructive impasse we have been on that has downgraded our credit and sapped our role as the world’s economic leader. But it is a down payment on the kind of movement that Americans deserve and that would provide a breakthrough for the Republican Party to re-emerge as one that can compete not just to win the next elections but to win the allegiance of a majority of Americans over the long haul.

That would start with a new GOP approach to health care reform — acknowledging that Obamacare is a reality, and working with Democrats to make it work by financing its implementation and adjusting the law to make it better. How about a deal that would start with malpractice reform to reduce defensive medicine — and in return, Republicans would work with Democrats to take a new look at the 30-hour threshold for companies to provide insurance to employees, a new look at whether the penalties for not getting insurance are high enough, and engage in serious bipartisan discussions of better ways to keep down health care costs.

And how about a fresh look at a few areas that got ridiculously politicized, such as the Independent Payment Advisory Board? Contrary to the overheated rhetoric, the IPAB is like a base-closing commission, a group of independent experts that can only recommend a set of cost-saving provisions for Medicare, with Congress able to accept, refine or reject — but if Congress rejects, it must come up with its own plan to save the same amount.

Next, how about revisiting compensation to health plans for early counseling on end-of-life issues, something that saves immense family heartache even as it reduces unnecessary last-ditch costs that can extend lives by days while also extending pain and suffering?

Next, we could use a new approach to infrastructure, starting with what should be a bipartisan embrace of the smart, market-oriented ideas of Reed Hundt and Blair Levin in their new e-book “The Politics of Abundance,” focusing on public-private partnerships to enhance dramatically the knowledge network and the power network to create jobs and jump-start the economy, while transforming our energy base and making us more competitive.

There are many other areas where cooperation and compromise would win kudos from most Americans.

That approach is more likely to come from the Senate to start with, but there is no reason why it cannot happen on many committees in the House.

One cautionary note, on which I will soon write more: Getting from here to there in the Senate will require careful thought and adept maneuvering over the filibuster. Change is coming, inevitably. But it will be much better if that change can come, as it did in 1975, with buy-in from members of both parties. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., among others, has been exploring ways to get real reform in that fashion. I believe it can start with eliminating filibusters on motions to proceed, but it has to go further. But even here, there is room for hope, if not optimism.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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