By Susan Milligan
Bipartisanship is back in Washington. And it lives with its bitter cousin, fierce partisanship.
The last two weeks have been a dizzying time of legislative activity in Washington and the most consequential and successful period of unpopular President Joe Biden’s first 18 months in office.
Recovering from a COVID-19 infection, the president last week signed two bipartisan bills aimed at cracking down on COVID-19 relief program fraud. That followed passage of a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a gun safety package that was far from sweeping but nonetheless bipartisan – and the first gun control legislation to pass in nearly three decades.
This week, Biden will sign bipartisan measures to guarantee health care coverage for veterans sickened after being exposed to toxic “burn pits” and to fund domestic production of semiconductors.
Meanwhile, Congress spent the weekend on what was arguably Biden and the Democrats” biggest – and most partisan – achievement: party-line passage of a measure that invests $369 billion to address climate change, forces companies to pay something in taxes, allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices and reduces the deficit by another $300 billion.
Not only did the measure fail to get a single GOP vote, but Republicans worked well into the nights trying to knock it down, twisting the arms to two moderate Senate Democrats and offering amendments meant to kill the measure or at least put Democrats on the defensive in their fall campaigns.
“Every member of my caucus is elated about what happened,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, said after the final vote Sunday.
“We changed the world, in a way you rarely get the opportunity to do. With the Inflation Reduction Act, the Senate Democratic majority has achieved what countless others have come to Washington promising to do but ultimately failed to deliver,” Schumer added, calling the vote “one of the defining feats of the 21st century.”
Schumer did not mention his Republican colleagues, who were still fuming over the spending bill, which is not expected to get bipartisan support when the House takes it up later this week.
It’s a sign of the modern tension in Washington, one exacerbated by the high-stakes, looming midterm elections. There are indeed issues where Republicans and Democrats are largely in agreement – but the minority party is also not eager to help a president from the opposing party rack up successes.
Even on the PACT Act, providing health care for vets, and the CHIPS Science Act, which will fund critical semiconductor production, presumably thwarting Chinese imports, Republicans openly put inter-party feuding ahead of what they had once supported.
Republicans had already added their strong support to the CHIPS Act, helping to pass it in the Senate 64-33. But soon afterward, Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Democrat who had been balking at a bigger spending bill, announced an agreement on the package.
Enraged at what they saw as a legislative trick – since GOP lawmakers didn’t want to approve the $52 billion bill if more spending was to come – Republicans tried to convince their colleagues in the House to vote no and to fell the bipartisan package. They didn’t succeed, and the bill passed, 243-187, with two dozen Republican votes.
The PACT Act, too, was very popular, with both parties wanting to help veterans with cancer who could not afford their treatment. The measure removes the burden of proof on veterans who claim benefits because of exposure to the burn bits.
But after the Manchin-Schumer deal was announced and Democrats prepared to put it on the floor, Republicans retaliated.
The veterans health care measure had passed the Senate but needed to undergo a second vote to confirm a single-sentence technical change in the bill. More than two dozen Senate Republicans switched their votes on a procedural measure, holding up final passage.
After a brutal public relations hit that included comedian and activist Jon Stewart leading protests by veterans, some of whom camped out on the Capitol steps, Republicans relented and the bill passed overwhelmingly. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, didn’t explain the back and forth but said, “These things happen all the time with the legislative process.’
The last two weeks’ wins, the product of an earlier and more collegial time in Congress, have been encouraging for Biden, who vowed during his campaign to unite the country and work across the aisle. The president frequently thanks GOP lawmakers by name when he issues statements on legislation and invites them to bill-signings at the White House – a once-common practice that was absent in the previous administration.
But Biden has also not succeeded in erasing the sometimes-nasty partisanship that has infected the capital city.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican who once called Biden a personal friend, was angry after Schumer and Manchin announced their deal right after the CHIPS legislation passed.
“Before the ink is dry on that bill, they drop this,” Graham said. “So what will vote-a-rama be like? It’ll be like hell,” he added, referring to the myriad amendments Republicans planned to offer to hold up the climate and health care bill and force Democrats to take uncomfortable votes.
But on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Graham also acknowledged the bipartisan work that has been done, appearing alongside a Democratic colleague, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
“We have found common ground on foreign policy, domestic issues. I’m working with Liz Warren to create a regulatory commission to deal with social media problems,” he said, referring to the liberal Democratic senator from Massachusetts.
“So there are plenty of us up there who fight and work together. I just want the country to know that all is not lost in Washington,” Graham said.