Congress has found a kumbaya moment. Can it possibly last?

December 18, 2013

Congress is working!


The National Christmas tress stands lit near the Capitol dome. After three years of fiscal faceoffs, Congress is giving itself the Christmas present of bipartisanship. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON

When the Senate approves the budget compromise later today, it will seal the first bipartisan piece of legislation to make it through both chambers of Congress in a very, very long time.  The question: Is the budget deal a sign that the partisan fever has broken on Capitol Hill or is it simply an anomaly that predicts nothing as to what Congress will or won't do in 2014?

"Maybe it's the spirit of the season, but I suspect that it is the power of a positive example," said Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Stivers. "Now that members have seen respected leaders like Paul Ryan and Patty Murray show that you can reach a compromise without compromising your principles, more members are willing to try. In the past couple of years, members of Congress would frequently say that they want to work together, but nobody has wanted to compromise first."

Stivers represents the most optimistic of the people we talked to about what the budget deal means -- and what it portends for the future of Congressional bipartisanship. Worth noting: It's an approach that the public says it wants. In a July Washington Post-ABC News poll, almost seven in ten voters said it was more important that lawmakers "try to cooperate across party lines, even if it means compromising on important issues" while just 26 percent said legislators should "stick with their positions" no matter what.

The opposite view is held by a longtime Democratic Congressional aide who insists that the budget deal was a total anomaly. "Both parties knew that after the shutdown there was ZERO upside for going through that mess again," said the aide, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the situation. "Plus, the Republicans don't need that now that they have the gift for 2014 and beyond -- the Affordable Care Act."

The general consensus coming out of the budget deal is that it represents a first step toward a change in how the parties relate to one another -- trying to find shared ground rather than emphasizing disagreements -- but that it could just as easily be followed by two steps backward rather than another step forward.

The tests of whether this was a one-time-only thing or a lasting change in Congress will be how immigration reform plays out in 2014 and how Congress handles the coming -- yes, again -- debt ceiling fight.

Immigration reform was stopped dead in the House after passing the Senate with a bipartisan majority -- 68 "yes" votes -- because a large section of the GOP conference was resistant to a comprehensive package that included a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers in the country.

House Speaker John Boehner, however, has said publicly -- and repeatedly -- that he believes reforming the nation's immigration laws is the right thing to do and rejected the idea that such an effort is DOA. "Is immigration reform dead? Absolutely not," he said at a press conference last month. Ryan, too, has been a behind-the-scenes advocate for passing some sort of immigration reform legislation, although how hard he will push -- might he be the public face of such an effort as he was on the budget deal? -- is very much an open question.

"I am skeptical," said Brendan Daly, a former top aide to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and now an executive vice president at Ogilvy.  "Maybe [Boehner's] hiring of Rebecca Tallent was not just a cover for doing something on immigration reform and he is serious about it. We'll see." (Tallent is joining Boehner's office after a stint as the director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She is also a former chief of staff to Arizona Sen. John McCain.)

The other major indicator of whether the budget deal is a sign of things to come or not is the looming fight over raising the debt ceiling. The budget compromise funds the government through the fall of 2015 but does nothing to avert another debt ceiling standoff in late February or early March. And, Republican leaders are already signaling that they will look for concessions from the White House and Democratic-led Senate in exchange for raising the country's borrowing limit. “We don’t want nothing out of this debt limit," Ryan said during an appearance of "Fox News Sunday". "We’re going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt limit fight.”

With more than half of the 12 Republican senators up for re-election in 2014 facing primary challenges from their ideological right -- including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- you can bet that simply raising the debt ceiling without any sort of accompanying deficit reduction measures won't fly. The White House has, so far, taken a hard line on negotiating on the debt ceiling -- they say they won't do it -- but it remains to be seen whether either side moves off of those positions as the deadline approaches.

Perhaps the key ingredient in deciding whether the optimists' or pessimists' view of what this budget deal means for the future of legislating is how a series of primary fights in the early part of next year turn out.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn will face off against tea party Rep. Steve Stockman in a March 4 primary fight and then on May 20 McConnell and wealthy businessman Matt Bevin tangle in Kentucky's Republican primary. Neither incumbent is expected to lose.  But, if Stockman comes somewhat close to Cornyn -- anything north of 40 percent of the vote -- and/or McConnell finds himself in a real fight to win the GOP nomination, the chances of the bipartisanship of this budget deal being replicated dim. The primary motivating factor for the vast majority of members of Congress is self-preservation, and if they see a more come-together approach being rejected by the people who get to decide whether they keep their jobs, the spirit of bipartisanship snaking through Washington at the moment will seem like a distant memory six months from now.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | December 18, 2013