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Infrastructure needs, high drug prices can unite 116th Congress

Infrastructure needs, high drug prices can unite 116th Congress
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All eyes are looking ahead to Tuesday’s midterm election results, which are likely to return Washington to the days of divided government. Although Democrats are expected to win back control of the House, Republicans in the Senate appear poised to maintain or increase their majority. Such a split decision will be viewed by many as a recipe for two years of stalemate on Capitol Hill; however, there are several issues where the interests of both parties — and more importantly, the country — align, making passage of bipartisan legislation in 2019 more than just a fantasy.

Some of the legislative priorities identified by House Democrats are non-starters with Republicans, making enactment unlikely. These include strengthening of the Affordable Care Act, imposing a carbon emissions tax, and a significant restructuring of the 2017 Trump tax cuts. Further adding to the tension among the parties is the fact Democrats intend to spend a significant amount of time and committee resources investigating the administration, including the president’s elusive tax returns. Nevertheless, there are some key issues where the door to agreement is not entirely closed.

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Among the major issues where bipartisan agreement is possible, two stand out: an infrastructure package and addressing the rising cost of prescription drugs.

Democrats have made clear that one of their priorities in the new Congress will be legislation targeting prescription drug prices. According to AARP, the cost of brand-name drugs doubled between 2006 and 2016. The problem is particularly acute in the Medicare program, which has experienced nearly 10 percent growth in drug spending annually over the past decade.

Both President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichael Cohen: I pray Michelle Obama's words will unite country again Michelle Obama: ‘I stopped even trying to smile’ during Trump’s inauguration Trump wants to end federal relief money for Puerto Rico: report MORE and congressional Democrats have made this issue a priority. Although Republicans are far from united on the issue, there are strong proponents in the Senate, including Sen. Charles GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Trump says he won't give up tax returns | Likely Dem chair vows to subpoena | Stocks rally on Dem House takeover | Tough midterm for many GOP tax writers Feinstein: Acting AG must pledge to Senate he won't interfere with Mueller Grassley to make chairmanship decision after meeting with colleagues next week MORE (R-Iowa), who is expected to chair the Senate Finance Committee in the next Congress. Couple that support with the public popularity of reining in drug prices, and the pieces are in place for a deal. Expect to see early movement on this issue, and a realistic chance of passage by 2020.

Everyone seems to agree that we must find a way to repair and modernize our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Year after year, Congress and the White House talk about doing something together on infrastructure, but then the idea stalls amid political bickering and concerns about funding. Don’t be surprised if Congress and President Trump revive such talk in 2019, with the possibility of finally finding a way to take that next step — enactment of a major infrastructure package.

The primary source for federal infrastructure funding — the federal gas tax — hasn’t been raised or updated for inflation in a quarter-century. This has stalled any hope of an infrastructure package in recent years, but the gridlock may be breaking. President Trump has signaled a willingness to support an increase, as have congressional Democrats. With President Trump looking to put a major policy victory on the board heading into 2020, it is not out of the question that Senate Republicans could be coaxed into going along. Even then, the question would become whether Democrats really would be willing to help the president achieve that victory. There is still a long way to go on this issue, but an infrastructure package is not out of the question in the 116th Congress.

Similarly, President Trump has signaled a willingness to advance a package of middle-class tax cuts, an idea prioritized by Democrats, especially those with an eye on a 2020 White House run. But politics is sure to come into play as 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, Senate Republicans, and President Trump clamor for credit in crafting the tax cut proposal. In addition, any attempt to pay for middle-class tax cuts by rolling back the 2017 Trump tax cuts is sure to dampen Republican enthusiasm for the idea, and likely douse the flames of compromise. As with most policy issues, the sticky question of how to pay for the package may prove to be too big of a hurdle to overcome.

One issue that is almost guaranteed to be ignored in the new Congress is the exploding national debt. It certainly won’t be ignored rhetorically, with both sides pointing fingers and casting blame. Both parties agree that the debt is one of the most important problems facing the country, but there is little agreement about how to pay for a fix. Republicans have refused to consider an increase in the income tax, while Democrats have been reluctant to put on the table the necessary deep cuts in federal entitlement programs. The reality is that, to make any realistic impact on reversing the debt, Congress must consider both revenue increases and significant programmatic cuts. So, as in past years, expect congressional leaders to continue to kick that can down the road.

As America catches its breath after Tuesday, congressional leaders will be preparing for the battle ahead: the policy fights of the 116th Congress. While much of the focus will be on the issues upon which the two parties disagree, there is reason for optimism that real progress can be made on at least a few of the nation’s priorities. Let us hope that the progress turns into bipartisan agreement before the voters begin to look ahead, toward what promises to be a relentlessly partisan 2020 election.

Former Congressman Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007-2013. He is the author of the 2017 book, “Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do About It.” Follow him on Twitter @jasonaltmire.