WASHINGTON (AP) – Joe Lieberman was back on Capitol Hill Tuesday testifying Democratic support for Washington, DC statehood. He then met privately with Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the many Republicans who vehemently oppose such a move.
It was a classic agenda for Lieberman, the former Democratic – and later independent – Senator from Connecticut who built his reputation for building relationships with Republicans. But in a bipartisan era, the approach becomes a relic, a risk underscored later in the day when the GOP banded together to block a voting bill that Democrats believe is essential to democracy.
Nevertheless, Lieberman was not deterred.
“In both parties there must be people who talk, negotiate and compromise with one another,” he emphasized.
The debate about whether and how the parties should cooperate is coming to a head, while a flood of laws in Congress comes to a head in the summer. The infrastructure package, which is a top priority for President Joe Biden, could suffer the same fate as the referendum bill that encourages Democrats to go on their own. Many progressives want Democratic leaders to remove the procedural hurdle known as filibusters, which allows the GOP to thwart the majority’s priorities.
Amid the tension, a small group of lawmakers has huddled privately on the infrastructure for the past few months to test a different approach. Led by GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana along with the Reps. Josh Gottheimer, DN.J., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., Have focused on bridging both the partisan divide and cultural barriers in Congress that keep House and Senate members from working together.
“This is a great example of finding common ground,” Cassidy said during a meeting on Wednesday. “We still have obstacles, let me just say this, but I just hope we can do it.”
Your success is far from certain. A group of 21 senators from both parties is already working with the White House to finalize an infrastructure deal. And with next year’s congressional primaries, there isn’t much energy in either party for centrist politics.
But the effort is notable for its buy-in from both ends of Capitol Hill.
In one of Washington’s bizarre truisms, as divided as Democrats and Republicans may be, the deeper divide can often lie between ordinary members of the House and Senate. They work in the same building, but belong to chambers with different customs.
In the House of Representatives, the majority is almost always ahead, and political pressure is never far away, with members facing an election every two years. The Senate in modern times typically requires the approval of 60 members to get almost anything, and members stand before the electorate every six years.
The result is a legislature that is often at odds.
“Even though we’re only a few meters apart, it’s like you’re in two different universes,” said Gottheimer.
That changed last year when some members of the House and Senate worked together to reach an agreement on coronavirus aid. With that experience in mind, Cassidy, Gottheimer, and Fitzpatrick found themselves among the dozen of governors and congressmen from both parties who came to Annapolis, Maryland, in April for an infrastructure summit hosted by Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican who was heavily criticized became partisanship.
“The # 1 problem we face in America is really toxic politics,” Hogan, who may be running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, said in an interview. “We are divided so far and nobody seems to ever want to work together to get things done.”
After the gathering, No Labels, a political group that focused on non-partisanship, enabled additional talks between Cassidy, Gottheimer and Fitzpatrick. While other conversations, including that between Biden and GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, attracted more attention, the other group stayed largely out of sight in contact.
While House-Senate talks are limited to a few members, these lawmakers are tied to larger groups that could prove important when it comes to whether an infrastructure bill moves forward in a tightly divided Congress or remains a punchline for dysfunction.
Cassidy is among the 21 Senators involved in negotiations with the White House, while Gottheimer and Fitzpatrick are members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 56 House representatives made up of 28 Democrats and 28 Republicans. Gottheimer and Fitzpatrick attended meetings with the 21 senators and passed information on to their house colleagues.
“It’s really fair to say, yes, we both reported to our respective groups and somehow helped negotiate a package,” said Gottheimer.
It is currently unclear whether everything his group has discussed will become law.
Over the past decade, the much-touted bipartisan pairings have failed to produce results on issues such as immigration and government spending. The Trump era has deepened the divisions between the parties, and distrust among lawmakers has risen following the deadly January 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the former president.
“You are in a much tougher environment than you were 30 years ago,” said former Democratic MP Dick Gephardt, who was Democratic chairman of the House from 1995 to 2003.
And while bipartisan groups can attract attention, they also attract suspicion and conjure up images of backroom deals done without much scrutiny.
This is especially true after The Intercept reported leaked audio earlier this month from a meeting hosted by No Labels at which Senator Joe Manchin, DW.Va., appeared to be suggesting donors try to find Senator Roy Blunt, R-Mo. to convince. to vote in favor of an independent commission investigating the January 6th riots in the US Capitol.
Manchin’s officials have denied he was looking for donations, and Blunt joined all the other Republicans in the Senate who opposed the commission. Lieberman, a co-chair of No Labels, told reporters that he had never heard members of the organization “ask a question about their business.”
Regardless of whether the conversations that Gottheimer, Fitzpatrick and others are having lead to laws, those involved believe that bigger problems are at stake. Fitzpatrick designed the work as an opportunity to push back against ideological extremes in both parties.
“If we can win here, I think it will send a very loud message that if the centrists stick together, we can overcome the margins,” he said. “The struggle is not between Democrats or Republicans; it’s centrism versus extremism. “