Bipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise

At the White House South Lawn infrastructure bill signing ceremony, a rare D.C. event occurred. Democrats and Republicans stood side-by-side and praised each other for crossing the aisle to get something done. 

Republican Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Senate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats Ohio Senate candidate unveils ad comparing Biden to Carter MORE (Ohio) told the gathering on a chilly Monday afternoon “This should be the beginning of a renewed effort to work together on big issues facing our country.” And Democratic Sen. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaBiden should seek some ideological diversity Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Pence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin MORE (Ariz.) echoed that sentiment, telling the bipartisan group of elected officials and others “This is what it looks like when elected leaders set aside differences, shut out the noise and focus on delivering results on the issues that matter most to everyday Americans.” 

To understand whether this success signals the possibility for future accomplishment, we have to remember how we got here. 

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Beginning in 2019, multiple Senate committees held dozens of hearings, developing, debating and voting on key components of the eventual package. In the spring, the Biden administration invited Democratic and Republican senators to the White House to begin negotiations.  

Senator Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoGOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Republicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall White House looks to rein in gas prices ahead of busy travel season MORE (R-W.Va.) led the Republican delegation, setting a constructive tone despite clear policy differences with the administration. When negotiations started to bog down, an equally balanced group of 20 senators came together to develop a consensus package. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight House sets up Senate shutdown showdown Biden says he doesn't believe a government shutdown will happen MORE (R-Ky.) and President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE made crucial decisions to empower Portman and White House aide Steve RicchettiSteve RicchettiBipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP dealt 2022 blow, stares down Trump-era troubles White House still thinks spending deal could be made before Europe trip MORE to resolve disagreements and close the deal. 

Active support by a diverse set of organizations including the AFL-CIO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and CEO Action for Racial Equity strengthened the collective resolve which proved essential when Republicans united in opposition to a crucial procedural vote. This flash of partisanship would usually be enough to end a legislative effort, but everyone stayed calm and carried on. The bill ultimately passed the Senate in August with 69 votes.  

The bloom of the bipartisan rose quickly faded as House Democrats linked consideration of infrastructure legislation to the administration’s partisan social infrastructure agenda. Had the House voted on the infrastructure bill’s merits back in August, the popular legislation would likely have garnered significant Republican support. After languishing for 80 days in the corrosive House chamber, only 13 Republican members voted in favor of the final legislation. This small group of independently-minded legislators is now facing retaliation from colleagues — not to mention harassment and death threats from constituents. 

While lovely to imagine a more collaborative dynamic in the House heading toward the midterm elections, hope is not a strategy. In the Senate, however, there is equally little hope for additional partisan strategies. Senate moderates have no more appetite for one-party reconciliation bills and even progressive enthusiasm to eliminate the filibuster is weakening as the polls suggest Republicans regaining control of one or both chambers. The pathway for legislative achievement in 2022 is therefore limited to proposals that can gain some bipartisan support in the Senate without fracturing the Democratic caucus in the House. 

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While the lane for additional legislative success is not wide, there are a variety of legislative efforts underway that could achieve over 60 votes in the Senate and unified Democratic support in the House. Bolstering U.S. scientific innovation to compete with China has already achieved a bipartisan vote in the Senate. Other Senate efforts include modernizing farm subsidies and nutrition programs, increasing pandemic preparedness, confronting the opioid epidemic and including LGBTQ Americans in the Civil Rights Act based on a bipartisan model negotiated in the state of Utah. There is good reason to believe that House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight On The Money — Congress races to keep the lights on House sets up Senate shutdown showdown MORE (D-Calif.) can pull the Democratic caucus together if any of these bills make it through the Senate. 

While progressives are incensed that the infrastructure legislation advanced absent their additional priorities, the debate revealed the limitations of an absolutist progressive strategy. At the core, conservatives prefer smaller government making it comparably easy to unite around “no.” The progressives’ refusal to support $1 trillion of investments that Democrats really like unless they get $2 trillion more of additional programs is not a strong position. While the left edge of the Congressional Progressive Caucus demonstrated strong organization and tenacity, it ultimately could not block the interests of their more pragmatic colleagues (and many of their own constituents). 

At the end of the day, holding your breath until your face turns red just works better than holding your breath until your face turns blue. Of late, the left and right have justified their partisan preferences by asserting there is simply no alternative. 

Making good public policy in a divided country is no easy task, but the trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure package contradicts the self-fulfilling argument for division. In a democracy, there is nothing more pernicious than lost ambition. The Senate’s success reinforces that there is a better way to advance the national interest and creates a rational incentive to try. At a time when people question the strength of our democracy, this bill is evidence that we can still, sometimes, work through our divisions. 

Biden told those gathered on the South Lawn of The White House that despite the cynics, Democrats and Republicans can come together to deliver results. Let’s hope this is not the exception, but more the rule moving forward.  

Jason Grumet is the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.