Boehner-Pelosi bill a lasting fix
A rash of bipartisanship has broken out in recent weeks on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and Democrats have teamed up to make progress on issues such as entitlement spending and education reforms, leaving lawmakers and Congress watchers alike wondering whether it’s the dawn of a promising era.
Most of the action happened in the Senate, where a compromise bill to impose congressional review of the Iran nuclear deal cleared one committee on a 19-0 vote, another committee was plowing toward approval of a bipartisan revamp of the No Child Left Behind education law, and the whole Senate passed a long-needed fix to Medicare’s physician payments.
The House has had its moments, too: The Medicare bill, which patched a 1997 law that was about to foist a 21 percent pay cut on doctors, was the product of negotiations between the unlikely duo of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Each side conceded on important policies to achieve the agreement.
“It’s a model. I think you’re going to see it more often,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican lobbyist who works on Capitol Hill. He said the congressional changes were “healthy.”
As the 114th Congress passed its 100-day mark, all sides took stock of the accomplishments so far: Nine bills signed into law, one partial government shutdown averted, a more open amendment process in the Senate and two presidential vetoes derailing Republican priorities.
The House and Senate also have passed budget plans and are headed for the first unified congressional budget since 2009 — though Republican leaders missed the April 15 deadline set in law for completing that agreement, drawing a rebuke from Mrs. Pelosi.
“Once again, Republicans have failed to meet their responsibility to the American people,” she said. “Republicans have spent the first 100 days of this Congress doing nothing but exposing their ineptitude in governing and their contempt for hardworking Americans.”
Still to come are big tests, including a debt limit debate before the end of the year and the annual appropriations process.
Mr. McKenna said he sees signs that the early bipartisanship could continue, at least in some areas. He said part of that is House Democrats’ adjustment to being in the minority and realizing that if they want to shape legislation, they will have to negotiate with Republicans. Another part is the approaching end of President Obama’s tenure.
“This administration, and truthfully the one before it, has been a toxic player in the legislative process. You’re looking at the waning influence of the administration and Congress sort of returning to the center,” Mr. McKenna said.
Mrs. Pelosi will join Mr. Boehner on Thursday for an official ceremony as the speaker signs the Medicare bill and sends it to Mr. Obama. Just months ago, the mere existence of a bill dubbed the Boehner-Pelosi compromise on any major legislative issue would have been unthinkable — much less on entitlement spending, which has bedeviled Congress for the past decade.
The Medicare doctors payment problem has stymied Congress for more than a decade. Lawmakers passed 17 short-term patches but failed to find funding for a permanent fix, as Republicans insisted the hit to the deficit was unacceptable.
But under the deal that cleared Congress this week, Republicans accepted more than $140 billion more in spending over the next decade. In exchange, they wrangled language that requires wealthy seniors to pay more for Medicare coverage, which they argue will help slow the program’s growth in the long run.
The Iran deal came together Tuesday after Senate Republicans agreed to limit their legislation to Iran’s nuclear program and adjusted the time frames that Mr. Obama must meet for submitting to Congress the agreement that he and five other world powers are expected to reach with the regime in Tehran. In the face of the narrower deal and the prospect of overwhelming bipartisan support, the White House withdrew a veto threat and expressed reluctant support.
A bill to revamp the federal role in elementary and secondary schooling continued to make headway in a Senate committee Wednesday and should be finished Thursday. The product of negotiations between Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, and Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, removes some federal pressure on local school districts.
Jim Manley, a longtime aide to Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who is now senior director at QGA Public Affairs, said the Alexander-Murray deal was encouraging but the legislation would be tough to reconcile with a more conservative version that is likely to emerge from the House.
The same set of ingredients doomed bill after bill during the previous four years, earning the 112th and 113th congresses the lowest marks ever in The Washington Times’ Legislative Futility Index.
The Iran deal, Mr. Manley said, does reflect real compromise, but the Medicare deal was chiefly the product of Republicans’ abandonment of their deficit-spending stance.
The real test will be on 2016 spending, when strict limits likely to be set by the Republican budget will have to be separated into a dozen bills that must survive a potential Senate filibuster and then a promised presidential veto.
Joshua C. Huder, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, said the previous Congress made bipartisan deals, but they usually were upended by divisions between the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-led Senate. A bipartisan immigration bill that cleared the Senate was blocked by Republican leaders in the House, and Senate Democrats refused to take up energy and financial regulation bills that Republicans pushed through the House.
But the Iran and Medicare deals in particular appear designed for bipartisan support in both chambers.
“We’re seeing the House and Senate leaders work bipartisan angles on bills that have a real chance at becoming law this week. That’s starkly different than last Congress,” Mr. Huder said. “This week the House and Senate worked on some issues that were clearly pressing, but did so in a way that weren’t overt attempts to divide the parties for political and electoral purposes.”
The Medicare bill that patched a 1997 law that was about to foist a 21 percent pay cut on doctors was the product of negotiations between the unlikely duo of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.