bright green shoots pushing through the surface this week.
These developments may not promise full-blown comity in the Capitol.
But they are a welcome sign that lawmakers from both parties are
finding ways to get things done — if not on big issues such as
entitlements, the debt, and taxes, then at least on smaller ones.
–A bipartisan deal struck by five senators from each side of the aisle
Thursday may solve the sticky problem of jobless benefits that expired
on Dec. 28.
–The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday to strengthen
federally subsidized child care for low-income families. The Child
Care and Development Block Grant Act, which serves 1.6 million
children through funding to states, hadn’t been reauthorized since
–The Senate easily passed a House bill Thursday that rolled back
skyrocketing flood insurance premiums affecting hundreds of thousands
of homeowners, sending it to the president for signing.
–The Democratic chairman and top Republican member of the Senate
Banking Committee on Tuesday announced a deal to replace Fannie Mae
and Freddie Mac — the two mortgage-finance giants that were taken over
by the government in 2008 as the financial sector imploded. If it is
approved by the full committee, it will be a significant piece of new
The motivation for each of the moves differs, meaning they say
different things about the prospects for further bipartisanship going
Election years can be powerful motivators for certain types of
legislation. Clearly, the flood insurance bill is an attempt by
Congress to assuage wrath at the ballot box. Huge premium hikes have
stoked voter outrage in affected states, including Louisiana, where
Sen. Mary Landrieu is up for reelection. She was a driving force
behind the bill.
Similarly, the unemployment insurance deal plays off election-year
themes. The compromise would retroactively restore five months of
long-term jobless benefits,
Politico reports, and be paid for by extending U.S. customs fees and
adjusting federal pensions. Now, Democrats may well be able to tout an
accomplishment while Republicans have defused a potentially explosive
“You combine the fact that polls for Congress are so atrocious, that
public distrust is at historic lows, combined with midterm elections
coming up and politically, a lot of legislators want to show that they
can do something,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at
Princeton University in New Jersey.
The Freddie-and-Fannie agreement struck by the Banking Committee
leaders touches on a more fundamental issue unresolved since the 2008
housing market collapse. It would replace the two enormous mortgage
backers (they guarantee loans that account for more than half of a $10
trillion market) with a single new agency that provides less
But a handshake is still a long way from a law, and, as congressional
expert Ross Baker at Rutgers University points out, committees are not
usually the problem. “The problem is when it gets to the floor.”
That’s when, as Republicans will bitterly tell you, Senate majority
leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada usually allows no Republican
amendments. And that’s when, as Democrats will just as bitterly
retort, Republicans often block votes or offer up politically loaded
That explains why Thursday’s vote on the child-care act is noteworthy,
if modest. Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa and Lamar Alexander (R) of
Tennessee — the chairman and top Republican on the Health, Education,
Labor, and Pensions Committee — ensured the bill went to the floor
with the opportunity for amendments from both parties.
Senator Harkin approached Senator Reid and Senator Alexander went to
minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky. Their deal: “We had
an agreement,” Harkin said. “If spurious amendments are offered we’ll
move to [block them]. If they’re on my side, he joins with me. If it’s
on their side, I join with him.”
In the end, more than a dozen amendments from Democrats and
Republicans were cordially discussed — and passed.
“We hope this is a good example of how the Senate can and should
work,” Alexander said earlier in the week.
That example is important. Half the Senate has been there only since
2006, and for an institution that historically values tradition, those
lessons need to be passed along. Many of the new senators have never
seen the Senate function properly — what senators call “regular
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland. To them, she says, regular
order was chaos, confrontation, and blocking legislation or
“We want to change the tone so we can change the tide, and show that
we can govern,” said Senator Mikulski, about the child-care bill that
she co-sponsored with Sen. Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina. The
bill passed 97 to 1.
Changing the tone is not so easy, considering the charged atmosphere
in the Senate — particularly since Reid invoked the “nuclear option”
in November, getting rid of the 60-vote threshold needed for
confirmation of many presidential nominees.
But Mikulski, who has been in the Senate since 1987, seems determined
to teach the newcomers how things used to be before all the senior
senators retire. She and Senator Burr worked on the child-care act for
three years and held more than 100 meetings with stakeholders, trying
to find the balance between quality child care with the need to avoid
“You know, it’s not magic to do the job,” she said. “The secret sauce
is actually starting with mutual respect, identifying mutual needs,
and trying to find that sensible center using courtesy and civility.”
— Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor is an international news organization that delivers thoughtful, global coverage. The Monitor is global, both in practice and in spirit. The Las Vegas Tribune features a variety of contributor from the Christian Science Monitor.