Bipartisanship Is Busting Out All Over

Michael Barone
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Posted: Apr 28, 2015 12:01 AM

Like spring, bipartisanship is busting out all over. Even more so maybe: Washington in a time of alleged global warming is suffering through a chilly, wet springtime, but bipartisanship is sprouting up like gangbusters.

Exhibit A is the Corker-Cardin legislation, passed unanimously in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, providing for limited congressional review of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Exhibit B is the legislation combating human trafficking, passed unanimously by the Senate last Wednesday. Exhibit C is the elimination of the annual "doc fix," engineered by Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

These legislative achievements came despite great partisan differences. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., worked out a deal with ranking Democrat Ben Cardin, D-Md., that overcame many Senate Democrats' reluctance to buck the Obama administration on this issue. Obama withdrew his veto threat in the face of the committee's unanimous vote.

Democrats, after supporting the trafficking bill in committee, started filibustering it in response to feminist groups' opposition to its limitation on federal funding of abortion -- even though such limits have been routinely passed for 39 years. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., responded by holding up the confirmation vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, Democrats agreed to a meaningless tweak in the language and the bill passed.

Bipartisanship is busting out on other issues too. Agreement was reached on extension of the children's health insurance program, first passed as part of a bipartisan agreement between Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., reached agreement in the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee on reauthorization of the education bill passed in 2001 as No Child Left Behind. Murray showed similar skill in reaching a bipartisan budget agreement with Paul Ryan, then-House Budget Chairman, in 2013.

Similarly, legislation on energy efficiency standards is moving forward after agreement by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. That's not an earthshaking issue, but it's one of those issues on which Congress needs to keep laws up to date in light of experience and technological developments.

A considerably more important issue is foreign trade. Opponents of freer trade tend to aggregate support and have arguments that appeal to certain voters. Labor unions reflexively oppose trade agreements, in memory of all those auto and steel jobs that disappeared some 35 years ago. Immigration restrictionists fear trade pacts would increase guest worker immigration.

Now legislation is moving to give the president trade promotion authority, without which the Obama administration will be unable to complete the ongoing negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

The TPA legislation, agreed to by Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and ranking Democrat Ron Wyden D-Ore., plus Ryan, now chairman of House Ways and Means, would require the administration to keep Congress informed on the specifics of the negotiations. Like previous TPA bills, it would require Congress to give an up-or-down vote on final trade agreements submitted by the administration. That's necessary, because other countries aren't going to make concessions to administration negotiators if they know Congress will try to extract further concessions as the price of ratification.

TPA seems likely to pass the Senate, but passage in the House is uncertain. In 1993, Clinton pushed through the NAFTA agreement with Mexico with 234 votes in the House -- 132 from Republicans and 102 from Democrats. In 2002, the House passed trade promotion authority by just a 215-212 margin, with aye votes from 190 Republicans and only 25 Democrats.

Now there may be even fewer Democrats for TPA, and Boehner, lacking enough Republicans to pass it, is pressing the president to get more votes from his party.

Which brings to mind the one person who is largely missing from the bursting out of bipartisanship: President Obama. All these recent bipartisan agreements have been reached with little or no involvement by him. They were forged by knowledgeable members of Congress skillful at bridging differences with colleagues across the aisle.

As Senate majority leader, Harry Reid blocked bipartisan measures, and Obama has shown neither the inclination nor the capacity to advance them. But with McConnell opening up the Senate floor for votes and amendments, agreements are now possible.

Bipartisanship is not necessarily a good thing. Strong partisans often dislike the results, and some bipartisan compromises are bad policy. But like it or not, bipartisanship is suddenly busting out all over.