Glimpses of bipartisanship emerge in Senate after divisive party-line votes

There are signs that the sharp partisanship that has frozen the Senate in recent months is thawing.

Senators ended last week with a string of examples in which key Democrats and Republicans reached out to work with each other on fiscal issues — albeit with some fits and starts, and just two weeks after a pair of sharply divisive, 60-40 party-line votes.

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Despite Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) move on Thursday to thwart an $85 billion jobs bill carefully crafted by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), senators this month have started to work more on a bipartisan basis.

• Banking Committee member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of the chamber’s most fiscally conservative members, initiated talks with the panel’s chairman, Democrat Chris Dodd (Conn.) on regulatory reform, a week after Dodd announced he was at an impasse with the panel’s ranking Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama.

• Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) saw their plan for a payroll tax break for businesses hiring unemployed workers become the centerpiece of the Senate’s jobs package  —  although only after Reid blocked $31 billion in tax cut extensions that Baucus and Grassley had crafted.

• Democrat Evan Bayh (Ind.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, teamed up with 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.), Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) on a bill to impose sanctions on Iranians guilty of human rights violations in Iran.

• Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Reid even agreed to break a legislative logjam that had stalled 27 nominees to executive agencies, some for months. The move was welcomed by President Barack Obama, although he had prompted the action by threatening to use his power to install the nominees by recess appointment.

“We cannot continue having the minority say no to everything,” Reid told The Hill on Thursday night. “I said nice things about these nominations, but they’re just a handful… We have a two-party system like we have, and one party doesn’t want to do anything. And I hope they don’t think that what happened in Massachusetts was the result of them saying no to everything. Because it wasn’t.”

Yet despite Reid’s moves, the examples stand in stark contrast to the Senate’s actions just two weeks ago, after Obama delivered his State of the Union address in which he pleaded for bipartisanship but took several shots at the Bush administration and congressional Republicans. Several GOP senators responded angrily the following day, and the chamber held two 60-40 votes in which Republicans refused to help Democrats raise the federal debt ceiling or adopt pay-as-you-go legislation.

Kyl and other Republicans hailed even a marginal improvement in the chamber’s tone, arguing that too much is made of the Senate’s large-scale failures since the vast majority of the chamber’s business is conducted easily and unanimously.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis on a couple of major, high-profile issues like the healthcare debate that suggest members don’t work together,” Kyl said. “The reality is, on a lot of things we do work together. For a long time, as long as I’ve been in the Senate, I would say much if not most of what we do is done on a bipartisan, working-together basis. But there are occasionally high-profile issues that people have very strong views on both sides.”

“It’s an inside-the-Beltway thing,” agreed Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “On a lot of issues we just disagree. Things like, how big we want the government to be? How much should we increase the debt? How high should taxes be? All these issues engender disagreements. It’s not easy to sit down over a cup of coffee and settle on things that you campaigned on and you believe in. In some ways it kind of gets bigger than you.”

Examples also abounded last week of the difficulty of bipartisanship. Corker crafted a carefully-worded statement to announce his talks with Dodd, yet was forced to issue a follow-up statement a day later that clarified based on “news reports” that he was not necessarily supportive of consumer protection measures favored by the White House.

One strategy which several senators from both parties praised Reid for using on the jobs bill, is to approach issues incrementally. Republicans have argued for months for such an approach on healthcare reform, and Kyl indicated support for that approach on the jobs bill on Thursday.

Lieberman said a larger package would make it difficult to attract Republican votes.

“It would certainly be harder,” he said. “This chamber frankly, needs a big bipartisan accomplishment, even if it’s one small step forward to create jobs.”

Lieberman was also among several senators who said Congress was still “getting over the year-long attempt to adopt healthcare reform, which seems to have lost enough support,” and that a more bipartisan spirit seems possible now that the Senate plans to focus on a job-creation package which has more support.

“For most of our history, partisan, political stuff usually ends for a while after elections and people work together to govern,” he said. “Nowadays, the campaigns never seem to end, and that makes it very hard to get anything done. Healthcare was the field on which all this partisanship played itself out and it made it worse.”

Another route to bipartisanship: the Kennedy-Enzi model. Several senators recalled how the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Republican Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) — the two men atop the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — would craft legislation by starting with the ideas on which they agreed.

“If they could agree on 10, they’d do the 10. And then they’d fight over the others later,” said Sessions. “But at least they did the 10 they agreed on. I think this administration was more confident of its votes, that when things got to a real loggerhead, they weren’t bound to approach things that way — that if they took it to a fight, they’d win, and the Republicans would come over in the end.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked repeatedly on Friday about Reid’s action on Thursday and whether it contradicted a renewed attempt at bipartisanship. Gibbs insisted the Schumer-Hatch provision will be the centerpiece of the jobs package and that other ideas such as unemployment benefits and small-business tax breaks will eventually gather bipartisan support.

Gibbs said interpreting Reid’s action otherwise was “an over-reading of the situation.”

“Whether it’s financial regulatory reform, whether it’s provisions to help small businesses, whether it’s moving qualified nominees forward, I think we can see certainly this week the benefits of working together,” Gibbs said.