Cooperation: The opportunity is there for the taking

Both the majority and minority parties have a role to play in addressing nation’s problems

A 2017 letter signed by 61 senators, including Susan Collins and Patrick Leahy, in favor of preserving the legislative filibuster exemplifies the opportunity for bipartisanship in the Senate, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A 2017 letter signed by 61 senators, including Susan Collins and Patrick Leahy, in favor of preserving the legislative filibuster exemplifies the opportunity for bipartisanship in the Senate, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 14, 2021 at 6:00am

My column from two weeks ago about how Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was meant to be a positive illustration of what seems to have become an archaic notion — that congressional bipartisanship is not only possible but can produce great, earth-moving legislation that changes the course of the nation.

Apparently, my brief history lesson on how this monumental piece of legislation became law struck a nerve. I expected some pushback from readers who might be unaware of the major role Republicans played in the bill’s passage, especially given the current narratives dominating social media. While most of the critics seemed ready to accept the historical accuracy of the piece, there were commonalities to their collective complaints.

Many declared that the kind of cooperation which produced the Civil Rights Act could not be duplicated today because of Republican intransigence. It’s naive, they argued, to think otherwise, and many dared me to name 10 Republican senators who would be willing to work with Democrats on major legislation.

Just as many argued that with today’s Republicans, “there is no way anything can get passed” so the only option left to enact the Democrats’ progressive agenda is to get rid of the filibuster. 

They are wrong on both counts, and the ongoing debate on ending the filibuster is a case in point. In 2017, just after the bitter fight over Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Chris Coons, D-Del., joined together in a letter with nearly 60 of their colleagues to urge Senate leaders to maintain the 60-vote threshold for legislation.

Collins said at the time, “This letter demonstrates that a majority of the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, can come together to protect an important tradition of the Senate that recognizes the rights of the minority and makes bipartisan legislation more likely.” 

Added Coons, “Democrats want the Senate to work, and we are willing to partner with our colleagues across the aisle if we can get things done for the American people.”

Many of the Republicans who signed the letter remain in the Senate today, including Roy Blunt, John Boozman, Richard Burr, Shelley Moore Capito, Bill Cassidy, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, John Kennedy, Mike Lee, Jerry Moran, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse, Thom Tillis, John Thune, Roger Wicker and Todd Young

That’s more than 10 for those complaining that Republicans willing to cooperate with Democrats don’t exist. But these same folks may be shocked to discover that there were plenty of Democrats who signed the letter as well. Topping the list was then-Senator now-Vice President Kamala Harris herself. 

She had a lot of Democratic company, including from Joe Manchin, Patrick Leahy, Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar, Bob Casey, Dianne Feinstein, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Mazie Hirono, Jon Tester, Maggie Hassan, Tammy Duckworth, Tim Kaine, Ed Markey, Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse and Bob Menendez, to name a few.

A critical choice

It’s important to remember that in 2017, Republicans controlled the White House, House and Senate by larger margins than the Democrats enjoy today and could have ended the filibuster for legislation without a single Democratic vote. Instead, they chose to protect the constitutional role of the Senate as well as the minority party’s voice. It wasn’t the first time.

In 2005, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was pressured to end the filibuster in a fight over federal judgeships. Like McConnell years later, Frist stepped back from the brink and chose to seek cooperation rather than confrontation with Senate Democrats. Joe Biden and Barack Obama were both senators at the time, and here’s what they had to say then about ending the filibuster. 

Said Biden, “Altering Senate rules to help in one political fight or another could become standard operating procedure, which, in my view, would be disastrous.”

Later he said, “At its core, the filibuster is not about stopping a nominee or a bill, it’s about compromise and moderation. That’s why the founders put unlimited debate in. That’s what it’s about: engendering compromise and moderation.”

And here’s Obama: “What [the American people] don’t expect is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all of the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet.”

The fact that Collins and Coons were able to recruit a majority of senators to stand fast for the filibuster shows that bipartisan cooperation is possible, even if it is on life support these days. And for those who complained to me that anyone who believes that Republicans and Democrats can work together to get things done must also believe in unicorns, we saw evidence last year that cooperation can still produce crucial legislation when the need is great. 

In 2020, the Senate passed five major COVID-19 relief bills by wide margins:

  • Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, passed 96-1 on March 5.
  • Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed 90-8 on March 18.
  • CARES Act, passed 96-0 on March 25.
  • Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, passed by voice vote on April 21.
  • Consolidated Appropriations Act, passed 92-6 on Dec. 21.

Neither side was totally happy with the final results. It took some difficult negotiations and a willingness to compromise on the part of everyone involved. But the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats found enough common ground to get the job done. Clearly, the senators who supported protecting the filibuster in 2017 aren’t the only members of Congress willing to cross the aisle and work with their colleagues in the Senate and the House today.

I can understand the cynicism reflected in some of the comments I read, given the toxic political environment on social media where so many people get their news and views today. But the congressional bipartisanship that pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 over the finish line, that kept Republicans from using the nuclear option 41 years later and that produced last year’s COVID-19 relief packages is still possible today. 

It simply takes enough members of Congress and a president willing to tone down the rhetoric, stop questioning motives and understand that both the majority party and the minority party have a role to play in finding solutions to the nation’s problems.   

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.