Washington Matters


Bipartisanship: Deader Than Ever

Mark Willen

Why working together is a pipe dream in today's political climate.



For months now, Americans have been sending a strong message to Washington. Problem is, not everyone agrees what that message is.

Parts of it are clear. There’s no doubt that a whole lot of people are hopping mad at everything from high unemployment to bank bailouts to the credit crunch and the huge deficit -- the list goes on and on. And they’re clearly angry at the president and Congress for not fixing these problems.

Beyond that, though, agreement breaks down. That each party blames the other is obvious, but after that it gets more complicated. For instance, no one really likes the health care monstrosity that emerged from months of negotiations: Liberals don’t like it because it doesn’t go far enough and conservatives don’t like it because it goes too far. And too few are willing to compromise because compromise is a dirty word in Washington.

Similarly, everyone is scared stiff about the deficit. Republicans think the answer is to stop spending money we don’t have – unless there’s a war or a hometown project they like. Democrats want to spend more to spur the economy and boost their own projects, and they believe that paying for it eventually means higher taxes – on banks, on estates and on the wealthy. Republicans say no way.

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This is nothing new in any of this – it’s been going on for years. But it’s crucial to understanding why bipartisanship – the often-stated goal of President Obama and most everyone else – is really impossible, at least the way it’s defined in Washington. For most elected officials, unfortunately, bipartisanship means getting the other guy to agree to what you want. Very few are willing to settle for half a loaf.

Democrats made a big mistake when they thought that having 60 senators meant they could give lip service to bipartisanship and still do as they wish. But you can forgive them a little when you look at how Republicans behaved early on -- before Democrats hit the magic number of 60. Consider the stimulus bill. Few of the critics will ever acknowledge it, but Obama compromised a great deal to win passage of the $787 billion plan. He originally wanted much more, and many liberals still won’t forgive him for caving in. In an effort to win Republican votes, he cut the price dramatically and included many tax cuts that Republicans demanded. In fact, about 40% of the total cost is in tax cuts, so when you hear Republicans rail against the stimulus as a $1 trillion spending bill that didn’t work, they’re twisting the facts.

Another example: The Jan. 26 Senate vote on the bipartisan deficit reduction task force,. That started as a genuine bipartisan plan, the idea of the top Democrat and top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee -- Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Recognizing that Congress didn’t have the willpower to make cuts in big-ticket items like Medicare or to raise revenue through taxes, they wanted to create a commission to put together a package of recommendations for Congress to vote on in one fell swoop. It had bipartisan support (27 Democrats and 26 Republicans voted yes) and bipartisan opposition (23 from each caucus). But the 53-46 vote meant it failed because in the Senate, it takes 60 votes to do almost anything.

Here’s the thing, though. There were seven Republican senators (Bob Bennett of Utah, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mick Crapo of Idaho, John Ensign of Nevada, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, James Inhofe of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona) who cosponsored the bill as recently as December, but then withdrew and voted against the measure. Why would you vote against a bill you cosponsored?

Good question. Most say they became convinced it was a backdoor move to raise taxes and they weren’t willing to accept a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes (i.e., a compromise). A less generous explanation is that they supported it until it looked like it might actually pass. Skeptics give a different reason – they were unwilling to let Obama claim any credit for a move to control the deficit.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem. Though Democrats have a big majority, they rarely can agree among themselves on the best approach. And Republicans believe that they’ll be rewarded for just saying no or punished in primaries for saying yes.




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