Could it be? Actual bipartisan action in Congress?

Posted at 11:55 AM, Apr 29, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-29 13:44:08-04

Don't break out the champagne or the choruses of "Kumbaya" quite yet, but Congress is actually starting to get a few things done.

It's hard to remember a time when Congress wasn't wholly and utterly dysfunctional, but in recent weeks bills addressing health, education and even nuclear policy with Iran have moved in a bipartisan fashion.

Deals look imminent on trade and cybersecurity issues and the vote to confirm Loretta Lynch as attorney general, which was held up nearly half a year due to unrelated legislative squabbles, finally happened.

None of this is all that earth-shattering, but the fact that Congress can get anything done -- and that leaders are making deals where they can, rather than watching every piece of legislation held up out of spite -- counts as something of a pleasant novelty.

"Some of it is just the desire to get things done, for both sides to show there can be some positive change in Washington, that it's not all just throwing bricks at each other," says Republican political consultant Jon McHenry,

So what brought on this bipartisan spring? Answers to that, maybe out of habit, tend to be fairly partisan.

Democrats say President Obama has his eye on the clock and doesn't want to let his last two years in office go to waste. He's more willing to bend, as is Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader.

Poppycock, say Republicans. Having Mitch McConnell run the Senate, rather than Reid, has made all the difference, while House Speaker John Boehner has finally gained some mastery over his unruly caucus.

"I think it's Republicans wanting to show they're willing to govern, honesty," says Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute. "They're willing to push this because they want to be seen as a governing party."

Well, for once there's credit to be claimed, rather than just blame to spread around. The change in congressional behavior appears to be real, at least at this early stage in the game.

"We're even seeing a little bit of movement ideologically," says Edward Carmines, research director at the Indiana University Center on Congress. "Liberals and conservatives are coming together a little bit."

Both the House and Senate are meeting more often these days than has been the case in recent years and spending more time voting on amendments according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"Democrats are voting with the president at or near record levels," reportsRoll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, "and Republicans are too." 

Legislators are also moving a lot more bills through committees, which, boring as it sounds, is where deal-making is most likely to occur.

"I can tell Sen. Murray was a preschool teacher," Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said last week, as he and Democrat Patty Murray won unanimous committee approval of a long-overdue education bill they'd crafted together. "She plays well with others."

The notion that compromise = capitulation has given way, a little. Which, of course, does not mean partisanship is dead. Not hardly.

There's still plenty of bickering about matters such as EPA climate regulations, repealing the estate tax and that perennial pinata Obamacare.

Republicans aren't eager to line up for a lot of signing ceremonies at the Obama White House. Photographs of Boehner kissing House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on the cheek last week at a Rose Garden party celebrating passage of recent health legislation seemed to give political Twitter a collective case of the willies.

"No one wants to have that Charlie Crist moment where hugging the president is held against them in a primary," McHenry says, referring to the former Florida governor. "But if there's an issue where there's a lot of Republican support, it's probably going to be good to take a lead on that issue."

All this opens the question of how long this new era of good feeling can last. No one expects it to linger long. Much tougher fights on taxes and spending lie ahead.

Oh -- and maybe you've heard this already, but 2016 is an election year.

"The era of bipartisanship will start to fade," Huder says. "You can probably expect this to go on until the August recess."

For the moment, Congress is using muscle memory most members forgot the institution used to have in spades, the ability to step around trip wires and find agreement where possible. "There's a realization that it's better to try to get something done if they can, even if they can't get exactly everything they want," Carmines says.

That's such Legislating 101 it's almost hard to believe Congress ever forgot about it. It's also what a majority of citizens want, according to a recent poll conducted by the Indiana University center.

That same poll -- and many others like it -- revealed what members of Congress can expect if they revert to their more familiar recent ways of constant squabbling and non-accomplishment.

Namely, approval ratings that are barely in the double digits.

[Also by Alan Greenblatt: The changing role of political outliers]

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