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 TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference 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 WarrenTim Ryan doesn't back impeachment proceedings against Trump Schiff: Democrats 'may' take up impeachment proceedings Trump claims Democrats' plans to probe admin will cost them 'big time' in 2020 MORE (Mass.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCory Booker has a problem in 2020: Kamala Harris Booker to supporter who wanted him to punch Trump: 'Black guys like us, we don't get away with that' Tulsi Gabbard fundraises off 4/20: 'Appalls me' that feds consider marijuana illegal MORE (Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerCory Booker has a problem in 2020: Kamala Harris Booker to supporter who wanted him to punch Trump: 'Black guys like us, we don't get away with that' 2020 Dems ratchet up anti-corporate talk in bid to woo unions 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 GabbardTulsi Gabbard fundraises off 4/20: 'Appalls me' that feds consider marijuana illegal Groups, lawmakers use 4/20 to raise awareness about marijuana sentencing reform Several 2020 Dems say they're ready to face Fox News town hall MORE (D-Hawaii) launched her presidential bid over the weekend, while Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandCory Booker has a problem in 2020: Kamala Harris Booker to supporter who wanted him to punch Trump: 'Black guys like us, we don't get away with that' 2020 Dems ratchet up anti-corporate talk in bid to woo unions 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 SchiffSchiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference Schiff: Mueller report 'far worse' than Watergate Schiff: Democrats 'may' take up impeachment proceedings 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 ScottLabor Department official steps down amid ethics questions: report The Congressional Black Caucus: America stands to lose a lot under TrumpCare House passes Paycheck Fairness Act 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 Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe 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 CramerCain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed Conservatives urge Trump to stick with Moore for Fed 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 MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Mueller report poses new test for Dems Washington in frenzy over release of Mueller report 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.