Senate Republicans say there could be a thaw this year in the chamber's frosty interparty relations if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid begins to loosen his iron grip on floor amendments.
"I'm very optimistic," Susan Collins told CQ Roll Call after the Senate passed a bipartisan flood insurance bill. "I think we've had a good beginning, and, as long as Sen. Reid agrees to open up the amendment process, I'm optimistic that we can get we can actually get a lot done."
The Maine Republican has been talking to Democrats about extending unemployment insurance benefits and there certainly is no shortage of other modest agenda items that could find their way through the Senate this year — or end up as partisan chum for the election.
"I think today was a good step in the right direction," Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said on Jan. 30, before final passage on flood insurance. "We didn't have the unfettered amendment process that the Senate traditionally has had. But we had amendments and we just about doubled the Republican votes on amendments from July to today."
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham also suggested the flood bill agreement could be a sign of things to come. "Whether it's an aberration or not, time will tell. But yes, something to celebrate."
There's a bigger celebration expected this week, as the Senate acts to clear the long-awaited, nearly $1 trillion farm bill, much of which is for nutrition programs including food stamps.
"There are things like this that we could do all over the country, and issues like this," Graham said. "Infrastructure projects, you know, if you can't do the big things, do things that matter."
No. 3 Senate Democrat Charles E. Schumer highlighted the legislative business that has moved recently.
"We passed an appropriations bill a week and a half ago. We passed a budget bill several weeks ago. We passed an immigration bill. We passed a farm bill," the New York Democrat said. "We've passed a lot of bills.
"I would predict 2014 is going to be a better year for getting things done in the Senate than 2013, and the parties will come together more," Schumer added, in spite of 2014 being a midterm election year in which all eyes will be on the Senate. "People are tired of just standing in their own corners staring at each other and not getting anything done."
Graham, who is seeking re-election in 2014, said he thought a more productive Senate would serve him and his colleagues well, regardless of party affiliation.
"I think the more of this you do, the better it is for any incumbent running," Graham said. "You know, I think those who want to play gotcha politics for the rest of the year are misreading where the public's at."
But, he quipped, "We don't want to ruin our reputation by doing too much," referencing the persistently low congressional approval ratings.
The flood insurance bill could be a template for other successful measures this year. Delaying scheduled flood insurance premium increases had bipartisan support — affecting constituents in both blue and red states — and a senior GOP aide said that lead Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia worked with Democrats to develop a list of amendments to receive votes before the bill passed.
Republicans want to know if Democrats will allow amendments to a bill by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Harkin and Reid have said the minimum wage measure is likely to hit the floor after the next recess.
"If they don't allow any amendments, then we will know it was legislation designed for headlines and campaign ads," the aide added, calling the Senate "under lock and key" by Democrats keeping Republicans from offering input on legislation.
But Republicans could also muck up the process by trying to force dozens of unrelated and politically charged votes — a frequent complaint of Reid's.
A senior Democratic aide agreed the true test will be on the bill to raise the minimum wage, as well as pay equity legislation and a college affordability bill Senate Democrats also plan to take up.
The Senate could consider the unemployment insurance bill could as soon as Thursday, the aide said. After likely clearing the farm bill conference report on Tuesday, Democrats head to a one-day retreat Wednesday at Nationals Park, while Republicans go to the Library of Congress. The Senate is expected to be back in session Thursday.
Democrats are in talks with Republicans over a three-month unemployment insurance extension offset by "pension smoothing" that would allow companies to reduce deductible pension contributions in the near term, increasing their taxable income and raising federal revenue.
Democrats had previously sought to extend unemployment insurance for 11 months and offset the $17 billion cost by adding extending a portion of automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, for another year.
But the proposal failed to gain traction after an agreement could not be reached on what, if any, amendments would be offered.