By Allen Moore
Just six days before the stunning election of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States, an odd discovery was made near a remote Alaskan village: two full grown male moose were found frozen in several feet of water with their horns locked together. These thousand pound giants no doubt became entangled while fighting over a female, and died together. It seems an apt metaphor for what could happen in the next Congress if Republicans and Democrats are unable to find a way to work together.
Many Americans are under the mistaken impression that since Republicans now control the White House and both branches of Congress, they can do whatever they want legislatively. They can’t. They face two challenges: first, the Republicans must figure out how to agree among themselves; and second, at least in the Senate, they must figure out how to bring some Democrats along.
Healing the Republican Divide
The Great Recession of 2007-09 blew apart an already fragile Republican coalition. Previously, fiscal and social conservatives found benefit in working together even though their priorities were quite different. The recession gave new impetus to a fledgling “Tea Party” movement of small groups furious about unrestrained federal spending, deficits, and taxes. They were particularly incensed by the massive 2009 “stimulus” spending bill and a law granting financial relief to homeowners whose mortgages were in default, believing it rewarded irresponsible behavior at the expense of those living within their means.
Before long, the movement was attracting a wider circle of disenchanted Republicans, Democrats and Independents incensed over the loss of jobs, homes, home equity, savings, health insurance, and the hopes of a better life for their kids. They also believed that Wall Street bankers who contributed to the economic collapse got a free pass. In the Congressional elections of 2010, about forty Tea Party Republicans were elected, handing Republicans a majority. That was the good news for Republicans. The bad news was that the Tea Party folks said “no” to just about everything.
It was the job of the Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), to keep this disparate band together. When he couldn’t get enough votes from his own party to pass critical legislation like spending bills, Boehner sometimes felt compelled to reach across the partisan aisle for his majority, further infuriating his right flank. His final such act was a year-end spending bill in 2015 after which he stepped down and handed new Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) the job of keeping Republicans together.
Just six weeks ago, Republicans feared the loss of both the White House and the Senate majority, an electoral blow out of epic proportions. Alas, Donald Trump, with all his flaws and controversies, orchestrated his own blow out. The election results and Mr. Trump’s more measured tone since have drawn back to the Republican fold many of those who opposed his candidacy. They want to be part of this unexpected opportunity. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. “Working with” is not the same as “agreeing with.” And then there’s the matter of the U.S. Senate.
Finding Democratic Partners in the Senate
The challenge in the Senate will be to assemble the 60 votes needed to beat filibusters, the lengthy debates for which the Senate is famous…or infamous. You wouldn’t know it from reading the news, but the Senate still gets most of its work done by unanimous consent. The leaders of both parties work out procedural agreements behind the scenes, protecting the rights of individual Senators along the way. Unfortunately, these agreements have become harder to come by in recent years. That usually leaves a choice for the Senate majority– postpone (or give up on) the issue or subject it to unlimited debate. Once a filibuster begins, 60 Senators must agree to end it. The process can take days or weeks.
The last time either party had 60 votes was in 2009, when two Independents joined 58 Democrats to create a “filibuster-proof” majority. The Democrats needed every vote to pass the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). For me, the 60 votes was the “curse of 60” because it allowed Democrats to proceed without any Republican support. If they had taken a different course in the development of healthcare reform and worked with a group of Republicans willing and anxious to participate, the result would likely have been a less ambitious law that enjoyed bipartisan support. Such support would have greatly enhanced the chances of making changes to the underlying law as problems emerged.
The “new” Senate to be sworn in this January will have 52 Republicans, eight shy of a “filibuster-proof” majority. Therefore, major legislation will need eight Democrats, or even more if any Republicans balk. For example, if President Trump wants a major infrastructure spending bill that is not “paid for” with new revenue or reduced spending elsewhere, he may lose some Republicans. But, he may more than make up for the losses with support from Democrats (the same thing could occur in the House).
Chances for bipartisanship should improve with the elevation of Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as Democratic Leader. Known as a deal-maker, Schumer has also known the President-elect for many years. Schumer also benefits from not being Harry Reid (D-NV), the retiring Democratic leader who did more in the last three years to unite fractured Senate Republicans than anyone could have imagined.
In order to end perceived (and real) Republican obstructionism, Reid led an effort to change long-standing Senate rules and practices by a simple majority. His legacy makes it impossible for Democrats to filibuster controversial Cabinet appointees and federal judgeships below the Supreme Court. Furthermore, by refusing to allow amendments to legislation, Reid got very little done in 2014. His controversial actions so outraged all Republicans that he single-handedly helped get Ted Cruz (R-TX), Susan Collins (R-ME), and John McCain (R-AZ) on the same page. I’m convinced Reid’s actions helped Republicans re-take the Senate majority that fall.
Democrats regularly charge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) with saying on the day of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 that Republicans would obstruct everything he tried to do so that he would be a one-term president. He never said it. He did say, two years later, that his top priority was to make the president a one-term president. In the same interview, he expressed a willingness to work with the president on matters for the good of the country if the president would show more flexibility. Sometimes that happened.
It’s hard to think of any Congressional or national Democrat who doesn’t prioritize making Donald Trump a one-term president. That does not mean that they won’t work with him on matters where they can agree. And work together they must if they are to succeed in their sworn duty to advance the economic interests, security imperatives, and legal rights of all Americans. The alternative? Imagine 535 Members of Congress and one president locked in deadly embrace at the bottom of the frozen Potomac come spring.
Allen Moore is Senior Advisor at the Stimson Center. He was Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Administration for President Ronald Reagan, senior policy advisor to President Gerald Ford, and policy director for U.S. Senators John Danforth (R-MO) and Bill Frist, M.D. (R-TN).