- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

The 109th Congress convened this week amid numerous speeches and interviews by Democratic lawmakers announcing their continued quest to find the Holy Grail of Washington politics — bipartisanship. It has such a nice ring to it. Cooperation, conciliation, comity. “Voters didn’t send us here to bicker. They want us to work together with the president and get things done,” was a common refrain. But this cocktail served up early in every Congress has a familiar taste of naivete, the cynics will say — we’ve heard it all before.

This White House talks bipartisanship, but walks the party line. Or does it? Many also wonder if the president’s second term or the Democrats’ defeat will make a difference. Will President Bush engage in a different style and substance in his relations with congressional Democrats because he has faced his last election and now his legacy is key? Will Democrats recalibrate their tactical engines and move beyond behavior that appears stuck in obstructionist high gear after losing four net Senate seats? The dance between the branches will no doubt vary in cooperation and affection based on the issue and the times. But those looking for a major tactical shift on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue will likely be disappointed. The level of bipartisanship on major issues probably won’t change a great deal in the next four years, but contrary to conventional wisdom, it hasn’t been that bad.

Part of the problem with bipartisanship in Washington is who defines it. “The White House probably won’t do a lot of negotiating with Democratic leaders in the House or Senate,” a former Republican leadership aide told me. “But that doesn’t mean they won’t be working with and reaching out to rank-and-file Democrats.” When the media writes stories about the legislative process, though, much of the focus is on the Democratic leadership, not about the Democrats who may have voted with the president.

In other words, bipartisanship gets lost in media translation. This certainly was the case over the past several years on some of the president’s tax-cut legislation and on Medicare reform. Nearly a quarter of the Senate Democratic Caucus supported those bills (12 voted for the first tax-cut bill in 2001 and 12 voted for the Medicare bill in 2003), yet because the Democratic leadership opposed them, they were not considered bipartisan. The No Child Left Behind bill passed the Senate 87-10. Unfortunately, the media instinctively turned to the Democratic leadership to judge if the White House is acting in a bipartisan manner. Bipartisanship will never measure up using that criterion.

Bipartisanship is also defined differently for Republicans and Democrats by the press. As one former Senate aide told me, “We get a healthy number of Democrats on major bills, like tax cuts, Medicare and education — and even larger numbers on national security issues. But we get criticized for not being bipartisan enough or all the time. The Democrats pick off one of our moderates on an amendment and they’re acting bipartisan?” Based on the track record in the Senate on these major issues he’s right. The media either has selective memory or uses a double standard in evaluating the parties’ bipartisan proclivities.

Finally, the onus of “who’s acting in a bipartisan manner” needs to flow in both directions. For example, if the White House generates support on any given proposal from moderate blue state enators like Olympia Snowe from Maine and Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island, as well as conservatives from red states like Sam Brownback from Kansas and Jeff Sessions from Alabama, it’s accomplished impressive breadth in ideological support. So if some Democratic senators oppose legislation under those circumstances, it begs the question: Is it the policy or the politics that drive Democratic opposition? Unfortunately, over the past five years, if the White House and Republicans were “for” something, many Democrats voted no, period. Blaming the president and Republicans for not pursuing bipartisanship under those criteria is an unfair criticism.

Bipartisanship has not exited Washington; it’s just ignored by the media. Over the next term, the White House will no doubt reach out to certain Democrats on key issues — such as Social Security, tax policy and litigation — just like it has over the past four years. These Democrats will join the president in trying to pass these initiatives. Democratic congressional leaders will not, however, be among this group of supporters. From the media’s perspective that translates into a lack of bipartisanship. Reporters need a better measuring stick.

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