K Street Insiders: It'll get worse before it gets better

This is the first of a weekly column by the biggest names on K Street that will unpack and examine the most important issues facing the lobbying business and the people in it.

The big question hanging over the opening of this Congress is whether or not the bipartisanship that everyone is talking about will be achieved. The answer: It is possible, but the minefield must be navigated carefully and big issues could overshadow lawmakers’ general willingness to cooperate.

The key to understanding potential perils ahead is to analyze each party’s motivations from a standpoint of its own interests, rather than its commitment to a romanticized notion of working together.

The administration clearly has an interest in working with the Congress to enhance President Bush’s legacy in his final two years.

The Democrats shouldn’t believe their own rhetoric about this being a rigidly partisan and ideological administration.

This president worked successfully with Democrats as governor of Texas and has achieved impressive bipartisan results over the last six years. But the closely divided and ideologically polarized nature of the Congress dictated partisan strategies at times. That’s the real world of politics. Now the world has changed and the administration recognizes it.

The greater question is: Will the Congress want bipartisanship?

Again, looking at the issue from a self-interest standpoint, the Democrats have an interest in making good on their campaign promises to work effectively in a bipartisan manner. But there surely will be voices arguing that unrelenting hostility toward President  Bush helped the Democrats to take back the Congress, and if they just keep it up they will win it all in 2008.

One of the main challenges to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBarr fails to persuade Cruz on expanded background checks Harry Reid warns Trump 'can be reelected' Homeland Security Republican accuses Navy of withholding UFO info MORE (D-Nev.) will be to keep the “DailyKos Democrats” at bay so that their mainstream Democrats prevail and a working relationship with Republicans can be established.

The road to success could include bipartisan action on issues including: immigration, education, entitlement reform, spending restraint and a pro-business agenda including trade reform. Remember it was the Clinton administration working with a Republican Congress that accomplished passage of NAFTA and GATT. 

During the Clinton administration, U.S. trade representatives Mickey Kantor and Charlene Barshefsky reached out to lobbyists to help form a bridge to Republicans in Congress and to Democrats who might have had a natural inclination to oppose trade.  In the fights to come this Congress, there are similar possibilities for lobbyists to play a key role in finding common ground. 

Although there are reasons to be hopeful, individual issues can poison the well for all the other opportunities to have bipartisan success. There are major looming policy questions — notably the budget and the Iraq war — that could stand in the way of true progress.

• The budget – Democrats have painted themselves into a corner, promising a balanced budget while at the same time promising new “investments” in human needs. The cost of the war on terror looms large, and the path to a balanced budget is not an easy one.

• Iraq – During the 2006 elections, the public made clear its desire for bipartisanship, but even more important was a strong desire for a different track in Iraq. Speaker  Pelosi noted this in her first speech after officially taking the gavel on Thursday.

Democrats were careful to say during the campaign that they wanted to fund the troops while not ending our efforts in Iraq before the work is done. However, now there are bills to pay for Iraq by a Congress where Democrats control the levers of power — the Speaker, the majority leader, the authorizing and appropriating full committee and subcommittee chairmen are all Democrats. Now Democrats will control and own a piece of our Iraq policy — and this will put them in conflict with part of their own base.

Influential members of the Democratic party have been calling for immediate withdrawal, zero funding of our efforts in Iraq,  and other radical reactions to what has been an admittedly tough time for us in Iraq.

History tells us that these fights can be the bloodiest. When I was in Congress, we had vicious debates over funding for the Contras in Nicaragua — and there were no U.S. troops in the field, no American lives directly on the line. The debates over the Contras harmed Congress-member relationships and for some time fractured the ability of many members of Congress to work together on other issues because of their intense disagreements over U.S. policy in Central America.

So beware: the bipartisan way forward on Iraq could get worse before it gets better.

The key for the Congress and the administration: Navigate with care. If they’re not successful, both Democrats and Republicans risk entering the August recess with the high hopes of successful bipartisan cooperation having become a faint echo of what might have been.

 Vin Weber is CEO of the business, government and public affairs consulting firm Clark & Weinstock. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 1993, representing Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional district.