From a bipartisan commission on debt to a bipartisan health care bill, the B-word has become the defining goal of Washington this year - but those on both sides have a tough time defining it.
For some, it's the paramount mission of legislating. Middle-of-the-road lawmakers from both parties demand that bipartisanship be breathed back into the process as a precondition for success. They include Sens. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, and Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, who called last week for a return to the table to finish health care reform.
For others, it's become nearly a dirty word. They say bipartisan policies are usually bad policies.
"The problem I have is, this is my 12th year in the Congress - I cannot recall any bipartisan bill that did not increase spending, expand government and increase our debt," said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, explaining why some conservatives react reflexively to the concept of bipartisanship.
That's no less true for liberals, whose top priorities in the health care debate have been jettisoned in the past several months as Democratic leaders sought a winning coalition.
"I bet there's a lot of Democrats, a lot of progressives, who ultimately think 'bipartisan' is a bad word," said Charles Chamberlain, political director at Democracy for America. The group, founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, last week fired off an e-mail to members titled "Good policy, not bipartisan junk."
He said bipartisanship often "becomes code for 'We're willing to compromise everything just to get one or more persons from the other side on board.' "
The word "bipartisan" entered the lexicon about the turn of the last century, and on its face its meaning seems clear: two political parties working together.
But after 100 years of use and misuse of the term, its meaning is now anything but clear.
Throughout the health care debate, Democrats have said they're willing to compromise for the sake of bipartisanship, but Republicans countered that a real bipartisan bill would include only provisions on which both parties agree.
Contrast that with last week's slimmed-down jobs bill in the Senate. Republicans pushed for a broad bill written by a Democrat and a Republican as the bipartisan solution, but Democrats instead pushed through a bare-minimum measure that Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said was bipartisan because all sides agreed on its elements.
Keith Poole, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who has created an index to measure partisanship in Congress, said bipartisanship is at its lowest point since the end of Reconstruction.
"What bipartisanship basically means is a broad cross-party coalition to pass a bill," he said. "The reason why you're having trouble with the definition is it doesn't happen anymore."
He blamed the disappearance of conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans and moderate lawmakers of all political stripes for the breakdown of bipartisanship in Washington. He noted that strong bipartisan support helped enact the Social Security program in 1935 and Medicare in 1965.
As a more recent example, he pointed to the 1983 deal between Republicans and Democrats to put the Social Security program on stronger financial footing.
Last week, he said, President Obama and members of Congress held a health care summit broadcast on C-SPAN as a "bipartisan" exercise, but representatives from both sides immediately returned to the cable news channels to heat up the rhetoric.
"It's sort of like the Hatfields and McCoys agreeing to put down their guns for an hour, or 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' when they came out of the trenches and sang Christmas songs for an hour and then went back to shooting," he said.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran against Mr. Obama in the 2008 election, said bipartisanship can be achieved, even in a poisonous political environment, depending on what's at stake and whether both sides can agree on where the problem lies.
He and Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, worked together on a bill to reform Defense Department procurement. Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama and Republicans also have cooperated on elements of Afghanistan policy.
However, he faulted Democrats for ignoring what he said is the nation's slightly right-of-center tilt.
"I think the environment is very partisan, but, and again, I do not speak from an objective point of view, but I believe the president came to power and Democrats increased their majorities in Congress and came to believe they could lead the country from the left," he said.
During the 2008 campaign, Mr. McCain staked out a definition of bipartisanship that boiled down to how often he had stood up to leaders in his own party and worked with Democrats, including on immigration policy, campaign finance reform and climate change legislation.
In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Mr. Obama railed against majority parties that "concede 10 percent, and then accuse any member of the minority party who fails to support this 'compromise' of being 'obstructionist.' "
At his brief news conference last month, Mr. Obama accused Republicans of misconstruing the concept for political advantage.
"Bipartisanship cannot mean simply that Democrats give up everything that they believe in, find the handful of things that Republicans have been advocating for and we do those things, and then we have bipartisanship," he said, adding that there has "got to be some give and take."
The interest in bipartisanship ebbs and flows, usually hitting high points after shifts of power.
The Congressional Record shows that lawmakers in the House and Senate mentioned "bipartisan" or "bipartisanship" during floor debates 33 percent more in the 104th Congress, right after the 1994 elections that pushed Republicans to power, than in the 103rd Congress, when Democrats were in control.
Mentions dropped again in the 105th Congress and hovered around 3,500 mentions per two-year Congress until Democrats took control again after the 2006 elections. The 110th Congress set a modern record, mentioning "bipartisan" or "bipartisanship" 4,474 times on the House and Senate floors.
Now, with the president's agenda riding on bipartisanship, talk has reached a crescendo. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, used the terms 15 times in two Sunday political talk show interviews this weekend, and lawmakers used one term or the other 91 times in House and Senate floor speeches last week.
Voters don't appear to be convinced.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Wednesday found that Americans think Democrats should be ready to give up more in order to achieve bipartisanship, though they also don't see Republicans making much effort to cooperate.
Faith in Mr. Obama is dropping, too. A year ago, 74 percent said the president was doing enough to reach across the political aisle, but in the new poll, just 47 percent said he was.
Mr. Chamberlain of at Democracy for America said such polls are misleading because they already assume bipartisanship is the paramount goal.
"You can't just poll on bipartisanship. Every time it has to be bipartisanship versus the policy under consideration," he said. When asked that way, he said, polling shows voters are content to forgo cooperation if it means getting the kind of health care policy they want.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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