Hopes fade for bipartisan bills in age of confrontation

Hopes fade for bipartisan bills in age of confrontation
© Greg Nash

The new Congress has just begun, but the window for bipartisan legislating is rapidly closing.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE and newly empowered House Democratic leaders have been optimistic about reaching agreements on a short list of high-profile legislative priorities, including efforts to bolster the nation’s infrastructure and lower prescription drug costs.

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But the bipartisan deal-makers are quickly getting squeezed: On one end, the 25-day government shutdown — the longest in U.S. history — is dominating Washington and cultivating more distrust, acrimony and finger-pointing between Republicans and Democrats as the partial closure drags on with no end in sight.

On the other, the 2020 presidential election is creating additional roadblocks for potential deals on Capitol Hill, where a growing band of prominent Democrats — including Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJulián Castro is behind in the polls, but he's finding a niche Gabbard arrives in Puerto Rico to 'show support' amid street protests Democratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall MORE (Mass.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWhat to expect when Mueller testifies: Not much Biden compares Trump to George Wallace CNN Democratic debate drawing finishes third in cable news ratings race MORE (Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage The Hill's Campaign Report: Second debate lineups set up high-profile clash MORE (N.J.) — is shifting their attention to challenging Trump and jostling to curry favor with the party’s liberal base ahead of the primaries.

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardBiden slams Puerto Rico governor over 'shameful' comments, backs protesters Gabbard arrives in Puerto Rico to 'show support' amid street protests Democratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall MORE (D-Hawaii) launched her presidential bid over the weekend, while Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage The Hill's Campaign Report: Second debate lineups set up high-profile clash MORE (D-N.Y.) is expected to announce on Stephen Colbert’s show Tuesday night she’s creating a 2020 exploratory committee.

The current environment in Washington is such that the political incentives on both sides favor confrontation — not conciliation.

A number of prominent liberal freshmen are fighting to pull House Democrats to the left, with a series of policy prescriptions that have no chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate.

Then there are the Democratic investigations just getting underway. New House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has vowed to investigate hush-money payments Trump reportedly directed during the 2016 campaign and Trump’s migrant family separation policy, while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCourt filings show Trump, Cohen contacts amid hush money payments House passes annual intelligence bill Judge finds Stone violated gag order, blocks him from using social media MORE (D-Calif.) is reviving the Russia collusion probe that had withered under GOP control. In preparation, the White House is beefing up its legal team in anticipation of a deluge of requests from Democratic investigators.

Trump and Democrats are both retreating to their respective bases, especially amid the shutdown in which the president is demanding $5.7 billion for his promised border wall and Democrats are refusing to give him a dime for the project.

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“If we can’t come together on border security, which makes up less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all government spending, good luck on trying to get an agreement on larger issues,” said one senior House GOP lawmaker who’s close to leadership but skeptical of a big bipartisan deal in 2019.

In 2007, when Pelosi and Democrats first took back the House from a GOP majority, they pushed every item of their “Six for ’06” agenda through the lower chamber within the first 100 hours of the new Congress. This year, they have yet to move any of their top priorities to the floor, as the shutdown has effectively monopolized the legislative calendar.

Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottHouse approves bill raising minimum wage to per hour Anyone for tennis? Washington Kastles Charity Classic returns this week Liberal Democrats warn: We'll sink minimum wage bill if moderates change it MORE (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the shutdown has complicated efforts to move legislation, even related to those agencies — like the Education Department — that haven’t been affected by the partial shutdown.

“Without committee members we can’t move forward,” Scott said. “It’s just awkward when part of the government is shut down.”

Those dynamics are threatening to delay any movement on a long list of legislative priorities the Democrats promised in taking control of the House, from proposals to toughen gun laws and protect special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE, to efforts to tackle climate change and bolster voting rights.

Another House Democratic lawmaker said he worries that Trump won’t move forward on any legislation until he gets funding for his wall, which he insists will stop drug and human traffickers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and was his key campaign promise of 2016.

“It certainly doesn’t help, especially if the president conditions other legislation on the wall,” the Democrat said.

Last week, Trump warned that the shutdown could last months or even years, shocking many of the 800,000 federal workers who are now not receiving paychecks due to the partisan impasse.

Freshman Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump puts hopes for Fed revolution on unconventional candidate Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Acosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers MORE (R-N.D.), a former House lawmaker whom Trump convinced to run for the Senate, agreed that a months-long shutdown would greatly diminish the chances for a bipartisan agreement this year. But Cramer argued that a separate deal could get done if the shutdown ended in a matter of days, even suggesting that a “big infrastructure deal” could become part of the broader negotiations.

“The more people want something, the more leverage ‘the great negotiator’ should have,” Cramer told The Hill on Monday, referring to Trump.

Still, despite Trump’s shellacking in the November midterms — Democrats picked up the largest number of House seats since the post-Watergate election — the president does not appear to be following the strategy laid out by President Clinton.   

After the GOP seized control of the House and Senate in 1994, Clinton engaged in triangulation, trying to transcend both parties as he successfully passed welfare reform with help from Republicans. The strategy worked, and Clinton was reelected to a second term.

Trump, seeking reelection in 2020, appears to be running to his conservative, anti-immigrant base. On Monday, Trump told reporters he would not give an inch on his demands for a wall.

“We’re talking about border security. Who could be against it? We’re talking about drugs pouring in, human traffickers tying up women, putting tape over their mouths and pouring into our country. We can’t have that,” Trump said. “We have drugs, we have criminals, we have gangs, and the Democrats don’t want to do anything about it.”

Democrats on Monday sought to break the impasse with a series of new spending bills they’ll bring to the floor this week. But without any concessions on wall funding, the budget standoff — and the delay in other priorities — is sure to continue into the indefinite future.

“At this point, zero is not a negotiating strategy,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsLawmakers request documents on DC councilman ethics investigation House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus and a Trump confidant who is encouraging the president not to bend.