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A Busy and Bipartisan Tuesday

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

For all the talk of the death of bipartisanship, Tuesday's busy legislative day in the Senate provided quite the counter-argument.  

A little more than a day after returning from a two-week recess, the legislative dam burst, with senators making significant headway on sticky issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law, a replacement for the payment formula for doctors who treat Medicare patients and possibly even the confirmation process for Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama's nominee for attorney general. On Iran, a debate that reached a low point in March with 47 Republican senators drafting an open letter to the country's leaders warning that Congress could undo any deal the Obama administration and its international partners negotiated was tested again Tuesday when the White House said it would sign compromise legislation negotiated by Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and ranking member Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.  

Corker took umbrage. "This has always been what it is," he said. "This is the same legislation they've always opposed. ... They are spinning you mightily."  

Then his committee went on to pass it unanimously, 19-0. And while a possibly contentious floor fight remains, with some senators exploring making the deal tougher on Iran, the measure is close to a super-majority level of support and is a top priority for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.  

At about the time Corker's panel passed its measure, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was beginning its deliberations on a bill to overhaul the No Child Left Behind education law. Negotiated by HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., it has broad support, including from the White House.  

In his opening remarks, Alexander lauded the way the parties worked on the law's shortcomings and broadly outlined the deal: "Working together the last few months, Senator Murray and I have found a consensus about the urgent need to fix these problems, as well as a remarkable consensus about how to fix them. That consensus is this: Continue the law’s important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement. This change should produce fewer tests and more appropriate ways to measure student achievement."  

One logistical hurdle Alexander encountered was when to schedule votes amid floor consideration of another consensus measure: replacing Medicare's Sustainable Growth Rate to avert cuts to payments doctors receive for treating Medicare patients. A House measure negotiated by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attracted opposition from some senators who didn't take to its $141 billion price tag. But when the chamber reached an agreement on amendments, and with the federal government running out of ways to forestall the cuts, the Medicare deal was another bipartisan green shoot.  

And on one of the most nettlesome topics for the Senate, a confirmation vote on Lynch, Senate GOP leadership offered a proposal to break the logjam. Lynch's nomination, which Obama announced on Nov. 8, and the Judiciary Committee sent to the full Senate on Feb. 26, has been snagged in a fight over a human-trafficking bill and its abortion restrictions.  

McConnell has said her nomination will not move until the trafficking bill is passed, and Democrats have been just as resolute that Lynch, who would be the nation's first black female attorney general, should not be used as a bargaining chip on unrelated legislation.  

On Tuesday, Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, proposed to remove the abortion language and replace it with the abortion restrictions in the House Medicare bill that Pelosi helped broker, the longstanding Hyde Amendment that restricts taxpayer dollars from being used to pay for abortions.  

While it is unclear how many Democrats would be amenable to Cornyn's plan, the GOP only needs a few Democrats to vote their way to break a procedural logjam on the trafficking bill. That may be why Cornyn said a vote to cut off debate on the trafficking bill could come as early as Wednesday.  

“I’m hopeful that we’ll get those votes and we’re certainly talking to everyone who will listen,” Cornyn said.  

At a separate news conference Tuesday after the weekly policy luncheons, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., without referring to any negotiations that might be underway, said Lynch would eventually be confirmed. “She is going to be attorney general of the United States,” Reid said.  

Other issues threatened any bipartisan bonhomie. The White House said in a letter to Congress that it no longer considered Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, for instance. A group of Senate Democrats asked the nation's governors to not look too deeply into McConnell's hostility to proposed Environmental Protection Agency plans to limit power plant emissions.  

But at least for one day in the Senate, bills started moving, horse-trading was openly discussed and lawmakers found ways forward. It might even be called legislating.  

Niels Lesniewski, Steven T. Dennis and Todd Ruger contributed to this report. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.