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Despite promises to bring about a new bipartisan atmosphere in Washington, majority Democrats have had little success in improving the comity of Congress since assuming power a year ago.
And while observers and lawmakers alike concede that the relationship between Democrats and Republicans is no better than when the GOP dominated Capitol Hill, there’s wide disagreement over who is to blame.
Not surprisingly, Democrats point the finger at the Republicans, while the minority is quick to turn the tables on the majority.
Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Roll Call contributing writer, said both parties bear responsibility for the lack of compromise since Democrats won back control of Congress in 2006.
Democrats set the tone when they spent their first days pushing through their top priorities without Republican input, while Republicans in both chambers have sought to gum up the process by throwing up procedural hurdles to stop Democratic initiatives, he said.
“Objectively, the indicators show some opening up in the process. There’s been some good things in Congress,” Ornstein said. “But in the larger sense, in terms of getting a branch of government where the two parties focus on solving problems, it’s very hard to find any comforting evidence.”
One Republican Senate leadership aide said Democrats may have talked a new line about bipartisanship but have shown little willingness to compromise with Republicans, especially on issues such as the war in Iraq. The interparty divide on that issue alone has left little room for smoother Congressional times, this staffer said.
“I think the tense nature of the Iraq debate has made it more difficult to come together — not only on that issue but probably on other issues,” the leadership source said. “There was hope for bipartisanship. But was it a fool’s hope? Maybe.”
Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans promised to put a new premium on working together during the 110th Congress. In a divided government, lawmakers in both parties said a year ago, Congress and the White House have an opportunity to tackle some of the toughest issues facing the country, such as Social Security and immigration reform.
Neither issue advanced despite a month’s worth of bipartisan attempts to deal with the latter. And as with immigration reform, Democrats and Republicans did look to strike compromises this year on key issues such as children’s health insurance, federal spending and new voting rights for the District of Columbia — but many of those efforts hit roadblocks along the way.
In the Senate in particular, Democrats and Republicans spent the better part of the year playing procedural games of chicken. The new majority filed a record 68 cloture motions in 2007 in an attempt to move legislation against threatened GOP filibusters.
In the House, Republicans have less procedural power and one of their primary gripes during the first year of Democratic control was that the minority was not afforded the open government that had been promised.
“They started breaking promises even before the very first day Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] was sworn in as Speaker,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
House Republicans have voiced frustration that they largely have not been given the opportunity to offer amendments and alternative legislation because of the Democratic majority’s routine use of closed rules.
Under an open rule, any Member — Democrat or Republican — can offer a germane amendment that is then debated and voted on. Republicans contend that last year only one non-appropriations bill was considered on the floor under a fully open rule. That bill was approved in early February. Several other bills were brought to the floor under structured or modified open rules, which allow for some substitutes or amendments but have limits.
Republicans argue that Democrats promised to allow open, full and fair debate on the floor when they laid out their “New Direction for America” agenda before the 2006 elections. Instead, Republicans say, Democrats have treated them the same — or worse — from a procedural standpoint.
“Did Republicans use some heavy-handed tactics when they were in the majority? I think the Members have already acknowledged that they did, and it contributed to their loss” in 2006, Smith said. “The Democrats promised something different. But the abuses in their majority have been far, far worse than anything the Republicans did.”
Some say tensions now are so high that only a new president in 2009 can usher in change to the interparty hostility. Bush continues to spar with Democratic leaders, and few expect the relationship to soften in his final year in office.
“We’ve had a president who made it very clear he has no interest in accommodating the Democrats,” said Steve Elmendorf, president of Elmendorf Strategies and former top aide to then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). “That will be a big question. He’s a lame duck and he’s less relevant this year — does he at all shift his position from ‘my way or the highway’ to try to get things done?”
Answered by Ornstein: “The prognosis can’t be particularly bright and optimistic if we are going to be realistic.” But lawmakers say they aren’t giving up hope.
“I hope and expect much more of an effort in 2008 for dealing with the big, important issues than there was in 2007,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), chairman of the Republican Conference. “There’s no excuse for taking a year off just because it’s a presidential year.”
Alexander is one of a handful of Senators and House Members who has sought to craft bipartisan deals, including on the toxic issue of the war in Iraq. He said that “unless we are completely tone deaf” to the electorate, Congress has to change its tune.
“It would be better for the country, better for the Democrats and better for Republicans,” Alexander said.
At his first press conference after returning from the holiday recess last week, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said rank-and-file Members had received complaints while at home in their districts about the partisan gridlock that plagued the first half of the 110th Congress.
Blunt also acknowledged that any bipartisanship is likely to be short-lived in an election year, predicting that the second session of the 110th Congress will have “a conciliatory start and a conciliatory finish, and the middle won’t be all that good.”
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), acknowledged the difficulty Democrats face in fostering more bipartisanship against a willful GOP that holds 49 Senate seats and controls the White House. Reid spent the better part of the year trying to corral enough Republicans to his side to force Bush’s hand on his Iraq War policy, but failed.
“Reid went about trying to find moderate Republicans to work with last year, and soon found out there are none,” Manley said. “Some of these guys paid lip service to the notion that they needed to work in a bipartisan way, but didn’t do so.”
To make matters worse, Bush has shown his strength through the veto pen. In all, Bush vetoed seven Democratic bills last year and threatened to reject numerous others.
Republicans and Democrats concede that the lack of bipartisanship is just one of the factors contributing to the abysmally low approval ratings of Congress. Still, no one seems to know who is going to offer the solutions for how to make it better.
“Washington is broken and somebody has to be willing to try to fix it,” Blunt said.