Last Best Chance at Bipartisanship

AW
July 22, 2021

No matter what happens with the bipartisan infrastructure bill, it's pretty clear that this is the last chance for any significant and meaningful bipartisan legislation for the foreseeable future. And, that's not just because control of the Senate is on the line in 2022. Two of the three Republicans most heavily involved in the bipartisan deal-making on infrastructure won't be in Congress in 2023, while the third could lose a primary. Ohio's Rob Portman and North Carolina's Richard Burr are retiring, while Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has earned former President Trump's wrath by voting to impeach him, has a serious intra-party challenge. As important, the Republicans running to replace them are more interested in fighting than in fixing, more invested in widening the partisan chasm than in narrowing it. Meanwhile, Democratic Senate candidates in key swing seat Senate races don't share President Biden's optimism about GOP cooperation. Many of them have pledged to nix the filibuster, something Biden recently said would "throw the entire Congress into chaos." 

The type of politician who prioritizes comity over confrontation has all but disappeared from Congress. In this era of zero-sum politics, it is all but impossible to win a primary election with a message that prioritizes legislating over fighting. This partisan "purity test" is a bigger factor in GOP primaries than those on the Democratic side. Since the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, a number of GOP incumbents and 'establishment' figures who were seen as too accommodating — including Sens. Bob Bennett (UT) and Dick Lugar (IN) and Rep. Mike Castle (DE) — were ousted by firebrands who pledged to take a 'burn it all down' approach to Washington. Former Pres. Donald Trump's scorched earth style has taken this intra-party fighting to a whole new level. Sen. Bob Corker (TN), a conservative bridge builder, was bullied out of the Senate by Trump and was ultimately replaced by the more ideological Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn. Not only must a Republican candidate show disdain for the opposition party, but they must show steadfast loyalty to all things Trump. A pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster has become more important to aspiring GOP members of Congress than the DC fundraising circuit. 

In Ohio, for example, Republican Josh Mandel is promoting himself as the most Trumpian of the GOP candidates trying to replace Sen. Portman. The first quote on his website reads: "I'M NOT GOING TO WASHINGTON DC TO MAKE FRIENDS, I'M GOING TO FIGHT FOR THE AMERICA FIRST AGENDA." In North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd, who has earned Trump's endorsement, has branded himself the "liberal agenda crusher." In his announcement video, Budd says that the "US Senate is the last line of defense against becoming a woke socialist wasteland. I am running to stop that." Alaska's Kelly Tshibaka takes a less aggressive posture than the other two Republicans, but she proudly touts her endorsement from Trump and has called the bi-partisan infrastructure bill "political theater" to "give the appearance of working across the aisle, with the Republicans being used as window dressing."  In Alaska, however, a new ‘top four’ primary could help insulate Murkowski from defeat. 

There's no guarantee that these three will win these seats. But, it's pretty clear that the Republicans who replace Portman, Burr or Murkowski will not be as open or accommodating to working across the aisle or working with the White House as those three have been. And, there's a strong likelihood that retiring Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt (MO) — an institutionalist and willing bipartisan partner — will be replaced by a much more confrontational Republican in 2022. Same for Alabama, where retiring Sen. Richard Shelby has endorsed his former chief of staff and former Business Council of Alabama president, whom he praised as “highly qualified” and “a very rational person.” Trump, who recently attacked the long-time GOP senator as a RINO, has endorsed conservative firebrand Rep. Mo Brooks. 

This same all-or-none fervor is not as pronounced on the Democratic side. Moderate Democrat senators like Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly were never seriously challenged in their primaries even though they often voted against key Democratic priorities like gun control. No incumbent Democratic senator is facing a serious intraparty threat this cycle either. For all the talk about the influence of the "squad," they've been less influential on the Senate side. And, quite frankly, even on the House side, they've had limited success.

That said, we also know that the Democratic base does not share Biden's optimism about bipartisan cooperation, nor do they support the President's continued defense of the senate filibuster. In a CNN Townhall on Wednesday night, Biden was pressed by an audience member and CNN host Don Lemon on why he won't support getting rid of the filibuster to ensure a voting rights bill passes Congress. Biden argued that not only would eliminating the filibuster "throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done," but that doing so would only polarize us farther. "I'm trying to bring the country together," Biden told CNN's Lemon. "And I don't want the debate to only be about whether or not we have a filibuster or exceptions to the filibuster or going back to the way the filibuster had to be used before."

But, in the Democratic primary for the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, every major candidate takes a different view than Biden. All have said they would vote to eliminate the parliamentary procedure. Many of the top Democratic candidates in North Carolina and Wisconsin are also committed to ending the procedure. Even if the filibuster stays intact, the fact that Democrats — even those in swing states — are willing to throw out the parliamentary procedure suggests that members of Biden's party are much more pessimistic than he is about the comity and bipartisanship. 

Control of the Senate is the main storyline for 2022. But, it's also important to appreciate the type of people who will be in the body come 2023. And, it looks likely that the new Senate will have fewer members who prize deal-making and behind-the-scenes outreach to the other party. President Biden may believe that there's still a chance for the Senate to work in a bipartisan way. But, there will be fewer members in that body come 2023 that believe that. 

Image credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin