About a dozen House Republicans and Democrats sat around a table on a recent early morning, eating doughnuts and discussing the highway bill.
The Highway Trust Fund’s July 31 expiration date was near, party leaders seemed resigned to advance yet another stopgap extension and the assembled rank-and-file lawmakers wondered whether they could fully unite around a strategy to force passage of long-term legislation. This would be uncharted territory for the Bipartisan Working Group, an exclusive association with a straight-forward mission.
The members-only organization has succeeded since its founding during the 112th Congress in fostering interparty collegiality and legislative partnerships. It’s provided opportunities for lawmakers to pitch ideas, find co-sponsors for initiatives and discover avenues for collaboration across the aisle.
The results have not been insignificant: Because of efforts from coalitions of members inside the group, three bills have passed the House and four policies have become law. But what the BPWG hasn’t been able to do is reach unanimity on a single issue.
“The first couple Congresses we didn’t engage much on the tough stuff, right?” Rep. John Carney, D-Del., asked BPWG Co-Founder and Co-Chairman James B. Renacci during a recent interview with CQ Roll Call. “We’d just try to find simple stuff that people would agree on, wouldn’t you say?”
“I think every issue starts as bipartisan,” the Ohio Republican replied. “The intention of it is to see if the Bipartisan Working Group can coalesce around it.”
Being able to vote as a bloc on a piece of legislation would undoubtedly boost the BPWG’s clout. Group members say that, more than anything else, would send a strong signal that bipartisan cooperation isn’t dead on Capitol Hill. That’s the goal.
Renacci and Carney met as frustrated freshmen on the Financial Services Committee. At regular breakfast meetings, they'd bemoan mutual concerns that partisanship made it impossible for members of opposing parties to even have a constructive conversation, let alone work together to pass laws. Sensing a shared concern elsewhere in the House, they began inviting other members to breakfast.
The tradition of early-morning gatherings over coffee and pastries (which dues cover) endured once the BPWG was officially born.
The demand by Renacci and Carney for members to take the group seriously is what makes it unique among the congressional organizations that boast a feel-good, “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along?” vibe.
“Everyone wants to say they’re bipartisan,” Renacci said. “Believe me, there are some people who want to be in the group but aren’t in the group, because they wanted to be in the group in name only.”
Admission is by invitation only, with current membership capped at 26 and an even partisan split. Second-term Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., wanted in as a freshman but had to wait for an opening until the start of this Congress.
The group meets every week Congress is in session, and every new member must sign a contract pledging to attend at least 75 percent of the time. "Jim's a stickler for coming to meetings," Carney said.
And then there are the rules of conduct: Every meeting is confidential unless 75 percent of members agree to make certain information public. That includes granting Roll Call access to report and write this story, plus admittance to one meeting that was off the record.
Carney and Renacci have asked members to resign when they don't adhere to expectations.
The co-chairmen choose the members from their side of the aisle, considering years of service, legislative portfolio, political ideology and personality — specifically, who can work well with others.
None of Renacci's picks hail from the flame-throwing contingent of the House Republican Conference, unless you count Florida's Daniel Webster, who ran unsuccessfully for speaker in January and subsequently lost his Rules Committee slot.
The Republicans represent the more "establishment" wing of the conference. They include Patrick Meehan, Mike Kelly and Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania; Susan W. Brooks and Larry Bucshon of Indiana; Andy Barr of Kentucky; Barbara Comstock of Virginia; Rodney Davis of Illinois; and David Joyce of Ohio. California's David Valadao and Nevada's Mark Amodei are notable for their tendency to vote with Democrats on immigration issues.
More than half the Democrats were elected in 2012: Bustos, John Delaney of Maryland, Derek Kilmer of Washington, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, Marc Veasey of Texas, Dan Kildee of Michigan and Scott Peters of California.
Reps. Mike Quigley of Illinois and Terri A. Sewell of Alabama, along with freshmen Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Kathleen Rice of New York, round out the group along with Vermont's Peter Welch, whom, with a laugh, Carney referred to as "our liberal."
Carney recalled that Welch was one of the only Democrats who dared speak on the floor in support of his bill, which clarified expatriate health insurance plans didn't have to comply with the Affordable Care Act's regulations for domestic policies. Democratic leaders were incensed one of their own members would take issue with any element of the health law and were working behind the scenes to sink the effort, he said.
The bill ultimately passed in the House and was later integrated into the year-end "cromnibus" spending bill.
"I will never, ever forget what he did," Carney said. "It was pretty lonely, him and I just sitting up there."
This month, the group couldn't reach a critical mass on one path forward on the Highway Trust Fund, and Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill to fund state transportation projects through October — a bitter pill to swallow for most BPWG members. But the BPWG did make a small statement in the final vote breakdown for the three-month highway patch.
Welch helped lead in efforts against short-term transportation and infrastructure bills, spearheading letters and pushing procedural maneuvers to force Congress to at least hold a vote on a multiyear proposal. When it came time to cast votes for the three-month bill at the end of July, Welch was joined in his opposition by BPWG members Moulton, Amodei, Barletta and Renacci, among just 34 votes against the short-term bill.
Carney didn't vote, but lest he look like he didn't stand by a colleague who once stood by him, he later went to the floor to enter a personal explanation into the Congressional Record: Had he been present, he would have voted "no."