Signs of bipartisanship scarce in Senate

Congressional Republicans had sent a split message on bipartisanship by the end of last week, with House members welcoming President Barack Obama’s plea to work together yet with GOP senators holding up a pair of party-line votes as the most likely way forward for Congress.

Obama on Friday consented to a give-and-take with House Republicans at their annual retreat in Baltimore, just one day after Senate Republicans voted en masse against granting the federal government the ability to raise the debt ceiling. The 60-40 vote was strongly sought by Democratic leaders to avoid another vote before the November elections — however, they saw the GOP deny a bipartisan vote, as well as a in separate vote in which Republicans rejected pay-as-you-go limits. Republicans said they feared that the pay-go limits were too transparent.

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Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) was among the Democrats who noted that the debt-ceiling vote and the pay-go limit vote were issues on which both sides of the aisle had largely made up their minds -- meaning that little congressional compromise was possible. Dodd, for example, said he was proud of the 70-vote margin that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s reconfirmation represented.

“We’re heading in the right direction,” said Dodd. “I think we’ll see that when around to the financial reform bill,” referring to the bill that congressional Republicans plan to oppose soon.

Some Republicans also cautioned against reading too much into the Bernanke- and debt-ceiling votes, as well as the Senate GOP victory in Massachusetts.

“Those aren’t things that determine whether there’s going to be bipartisanship,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). “On the way these issues were crafted, these were fundamental issues even before Massachusetts.”

Instead, Snowe and other GOP senators said they endorsed Obama’s call for monthly meetings between his administration and Republicans to discuss ideas in a way that could develop centrist policies that both parties could embrace.

“The result that came even before Massachusetts was strong opposition to what the president was proposing, and I think this will be indicative of that,” Snowe said. “Some of these issues have already been cemented even before Christmas… Some people said it was a disincentive, but other people said it would have created an incentive to more (taxes) than that, and I hope we can go back to the drawing board.”

But Democrats such as Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) laid the blame for healthcare reform squarely at the GOP’s doorstep, saying that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has done everything possible to reach out to Republicans.


“As the president said, just saying ‘no’ to everything is not leadership,” said Harkin. “And we’ve got to determine if there’s Republicans who want to be active, engaged players, or if they just want to say ‘no’ to everything. That’s their decision. I can’t make it for them.”

Asked if there was any fault on the Democrats' side for failing to reach out to the GOP, Harkin said, “No. We did everything humanly possible… And every time it was just, 'No. Sixty votes, that’s it.’ And on minor votes, too.”

Republicans say incremental, occasional success could lead the way toward greater success in the Senate. GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Democrat Charles Schumer (N.Y.) teamed up on a payroll tax cut for new employee hires last week, for example, and Democratic Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.) teamed up with ranking Republican Judd Gregg (N.H.) to try to pass a deficit-study commission.

“When we have that opportunity, there are forces that demonstrate the ability to overcome that (bipartisanship),” said Corker. “What can overcome this is some successes where centrist policies are laid out. At the end of the day, the policies that have been laid out are not centrist. They’re not middle-of-the-road.”

Likewise, 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain (R-Ariz.) laid the blame at Reid’s feet for failing to involve Republicans.

“It’s not up to us. It’s up to them,” McCain said. “(Minority Leader) Sen. (Mitch) McConnell has said time and time again, we’d be happy to sit down with them. But on things like healthcare, they’ve got to start over.”

Several Democratic senators said bipartisanship remains alive. Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D), for example, said he is continuing to work with GOP senators on campaign finance, healthcare reform and line-item vetos. Likewise, New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D) and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) announced a joint effort this week to exempt businesses from 2010 payroll taxes for hiring any employee for the duration of the year.

Feingold and other Democrats held those issues up as examples that the Senate is still functioning in a bipartisan manner.

“It’s not hopeless,” Feingold said.