Lawmakers Sing a Bipartisan Tune as a Bitter Fall Looms

Trump’s recent deal-making elicits confusion and hope

President Donald Trump's recent outreach to Democrats has elicited mixed reaction from both Republicans and Democrats. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump's recent outreach to Democrats has elicited mixed reaction from both Republicans and Democrats. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 18, 2017 at 11:00am

Bipartisanship is the song of September.

But as President Donald Trump amps up his outreach to Democrats, members on both sides of the aisle remain skeptical of his intentions. And the likelihood that his efforts change the hyperpartisan environment on Capitol Hill appears slim.

Faced with a busy month, Congress has moved faster at meeting a number of key deadlines than many had initially thought. Members exhibited a bipartisan spirit — though not entirely on the terms GOP leadership might have wanted — that previously seemed difficult in the wake of a bitter battle over the fate of the U.S. health care system.

Republicans and Democrats came together to pass a short-term continuing resolution and debt ceiling extension. That package included an extension of the National Flood Insurance Program, something viewed as necessary in the wake of two major hurricanes, and a $25 billion disaster relief package intended to help areas hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

But in a sign of the animosity over that deal, which side “won” that bargain continues to be a point of major debate in Congress

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and ranking member Ron Wyden of Oregon recently announced a deal on a five-year renewal of the Children’s Health Insurance Program that expires at the end of the month, a deadline many were concerned about following the GOP attempt to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.

Trump earned accolades from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — and outrage from elements of his political base — for the recent outreach to Democrats on the issue of undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children.

But confusion mounts over what exactly was agreed to in a meeting with Democratic leaders on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Some Republicans openly question why the president would negotiate such an issue with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi without any Republican leaders in attendance.

‘Confusing’ cues

Maine Republican Susan Collins, one of the Senate’s most bipartisan members, called the recent actions by the president “rather confusing.”

“On the one hand, he issues an executive order repealing DACA and then, rather than negotiating with Republican senators, he is reported to have made an agreement with the Democratic leadership,” she said last week. “And then he says that, no, there isn’t a deal. So it’s very difficult to figure out where agreements have been reached and where they haven’t been.”

The fight over the undocumented childhood immigrants, also known as Dreamers, promises to be anything but cordial. Congress has tried to pass major immigration bills for years only to fail because of partisan politics.

Signs of that looming battle are apparent.

In the fallout over Trump’s dinner with the Democratic leaders, prominent Republicans in Congress issued a reality check.

“People sometimes overreact in thinking that [Trump] and the Democratic leadership can somehow cut a deal that binds the rest of the legislative branch, which is not true,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said. “I think he needs to realize that Chuck Schumer does not have his best interests at heart. Neither does Nancy Pelosi.”

When asked whether he would like to see the president host more dinners with Democratic leaders, Cornyn said with a laugh, “He seems to be very social and enjoy those.”

“I don’t think I would enjoy them quite as much as he does,” the Texas Republican added.

Still, other GOP members say Trump’s work across the aisle makes it easier for Republicans and Democrats in Congress to work together.

“Senators follow, to some degree, the president’s lead in regard to outreach and trying to find common ground with Democrats,” Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said. “The president’s outreach to find bipartisan support for his policies … [encourages] Republican senators, Republican members of Congress to do the same thing.”

This bipartisan spirit is unlikely to continue, however. The coming months will include a largely Republican-directed overhaul of the U.S. tax code.

“I’ve devoted my whole professional career to trying to find what I call principled bipartisanship. I’ve written two full tax reform bills, including most recently with a member of the president’s Cabinet, and I have not had any conversations with them,” Wyden said.

While the GOP hopes to bring some Democrats on board to at least call the effort bipartisan, early indicators of the still-secret language would openly defy many of the “red lines” Democrats have outlined.

A partisan start

Ask any senator about bipartisanship and they will tell you it occurs all the time in the chamber, an institution that mostly requires cooperation between the two parties to function.

While that is true and there have been some displays of working across the aisle this Congress, partisanship in the Senate feels like it has risen to new levels.

Democrats slow-rolled many of Trump’s nominees to fill crucial positions in the U.S. government, and the chamber is still trying to work through a substantial backlog of nominees.

Republicans spent a large chunk of the year working to repeal former President Barack Obama’s domestic achievements, including the 2010 health care law. They repeatedly blasted Democrats for not supporting them in that effort. However, Republicans made few attempts to incorporate Democrats in the process. 

Members even poured cold water on some of the recent bipartisan compromises, such as the bill to keep the government funded until Dec. 8.

“I’m pleased that we are addressing issues that need to be addressed this month. But my caveat would be when it came to the CR and the debt ceiling, it’s such a short-term fix that it gives us a moment to breathe but it doesn’t solve the problem,” Moran said.

Upcoming legislation, such as an immigration bill or a measure to fund the government in fiscal 2018, will need support from both parties to pass. Whether the tax effort that Republicans will still try to advance with only GOP support sours the atmosphere remains to be seen.