Prospects for Bipartisanship in an Election Year

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said 2018 should be a year of bipartisan compromise, but that may be easier said than done after the GOP-controlled Congress shoved through a massive tax cut at the end of 2017 and ideological differences in the House threaten to blunt deals with Senate Democrats. [Photo Credit: AP/Susan Walsh]

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said 2018 should be a year of bipartisan compromise, but that may be easier said than done after the GOP-controlled Congress shoved through a massive tax cut at the end of 2017 and ideological differences in the House threaten to blunt deals with Senate Democrats. [Photo Credit: AP/Susan Walsh]

Will 2018 be the year of congressional bipartisanship or a retreat to political trenches before the November general election? It is a critical question that could determine the shape of spending, immigration, pension protection, defense, foreign policy and border security legislation.

It is also a question of time as the Senate returns to work this week and the House comes back next week.

The next Waterloo date for Congress is January 19 when the current short-term spending measure expires. Reconciliation rules don’t apply, which means whatever legislation emerges must pass the 60-vote cloture hurdle in the Senate. Christmas has passed, so GOP congressional leaders can’t rely on Democratic reluctance to allow a holiday federal government shutdown.

Before the holiday break, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled a need to seek bipartisan approaches in 2018. House Speaker Paul Ryan has focused more on trimming spending on so-called entitlement programs, which is unlikely to attract much bipartisan support. Congressional Democrats can be expected to weigh compromise against electoral advantage.

There is no better example of the political watershed than Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Democrats want a clean bill to secure their place in America and a path to citizenship. President Trump plopped the issue in the lap of Congress with a March 5 deadline as leverage to gain Democratic support for his promised border wall. Congressional Republicans may stop short of the Trump wall, but want fortified border security as part of any deal.

Trump gave Congress until March to reach a compromise. Latino interest groups expressed displeasure at Democratic failure to force the DACA issue in the pre-Christmas spending showdown, which foreshadows a more aggressive stance by Democrats in January negotiations. Conservative Republicans equate protection for children brought to America by their parents illegally as amnesty, which they have pledged to oppose.

There aren’t any obvious silver-bullet issues to inspire bipartisanship. The closest no-brainer issue is continued funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Before heading home for Christmas, Congress ponied up $3 billion to sustain CHIP for three months. Democrats want CHIP to continue while House Republicans appear to view it as a vehicle to dismantle additional parts of the Affordable Care Act.

During the holiday break, Democrats floated a new issue that could be a wrench in the works or a possible bargaining chip. On “Face the Nation,” Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and New York Congressman Joe Crowley called for government-backed private pension protection. Even though the recent run-up in the stock markets have boosted retirement accounts, Dingell and Crowley argued many Americans remains under water because of the Great Recession and pressure on private pensions continues to mount. The proposed solution involves government securitization of pension benefits, much like protection for savings accounts in banks, through some form of bonding. Democrats figure this issue would especially appeal to middle-class Americans.

Republicans, supported by Trump, want to boost military spending. The price for Democrats is increased social spending – or avoiding cuts in Medicaid. There eventually will be a deal on spending and an increase on the debt ceiling, but the deal that Senate Democrats would support may splinter the GOP majority in the House.

How forceful each side remains could depend on public reaction to the GOP-passed tax-cut legislation. Backers of the $1.5 trillion tax cut are counting on bolstered take-home pay as early as February to start changing American opinion about the legislation, which Democrats branded as heavily benefitting corporations and wealthier taxpayers.

If fatter paychecks turn heads, it may embolden Republicans. If the tax cuts seem insignificant, then Democrats may become more obstinate.

The congressional agenda is chocked full of other issues, including an extension of FISA court orders required to conduct domestic surveillance and additional disaster relief for states and territories hit hard by hurricanes, flooding and wildfires. Both offer some glimmer of hope for bipartisan cooperation.

Another possible bipartisan topic is stabilization of health insurance markets. Maine GOP Senator Susan Collins voted for tax-cut legislation on promises by here Republican colleagues to address the issue by agreeing to give insurers as much as $10.5 billion to compensate for coverage for high-cost and poor people. The conservative wing in the House has given that idea a cool reception as it warns about more spending driving up the federal deficit.

On philosophical grounds, the most likely bipartisan target is increased funding on infrastructure. Trump has promised to submit his plan to Congress this month and congressional leaders also have been working on proposals. Again, the pain point may be more spending and a higher deficit. That argument inevitably will revive the debate over the GOP-backed tax cut and whether it starts paying off in 2018.