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Bipartisanship could lead to progress

Will bipartisanship work in the present national climate? This is an age when congressional combatants have retreated to their respective corners. When the bell rings they come out slugging, looking for the knockout blow. It’s hard to imagine success, but maybe it’s worth a try.

A recent compromise budget deal that included disaster relief aid was brokered by the president, and congressional Democrats bypassed Republican leadership to get it done. While that created some dissension, the agreement passed and was signed into law. Perhaps that arrangement shows a way forward.

Are there circumstances in which additional bipartisanship might work? Let’s speculate.

Repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was the top legislative priority of the Republican Congress and the president coming out of their victorious 2017 campaign. The recent bulldozer repeal failed when a handful of Republican senators refused to support their own party’s heavy-handed approach. Could a cross-party effort bear fruit?

Those who support Obamacare acknowledge that adjustments would be acceptable. After all, Social Security and Medicare were adjusted and improved after their enactment. As with them, the Affordable Care Act was a bundle of compromises reflecting competing interests, constituencies and lobby groups. Proposed legislation, even under one political party’s dominance, succeeds only if those conflicting forces are recognized and, where possible, accommodated.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were past masters at the art of compromise, even when they held most of the bargaining chips. Sen. John McCain refused to support the bulldozer attempt to repeal ACA, insisting instead that congressional leadership must reach out and work with the other party.

But what kind of a compromise might work? Obamacare supporters want to keep the basic structure but would be willing to do something about out-of-control pharmaceutical prices. Opponents would also be willing to do something about out-of-control pharmaceutical prices. What would either side trade or give up to achieve that common goal?

Give up too much and you endanger your political support; give up or trade too little and you fail to achieve any progress. As we move into Campaign 2018, rhetoric and partisanship increase both the need and danger of action on such a key issue as health care. Stay tuned.

Infrastructure also cries out for joint action and is not as ideologically toxic as other issues. Start with rebuilding Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and perhaps that will provide a model for broad cooperative legislation for the nation as a whole. A well-known dictatorship in a more pragmatic mode once pointed out that it doesn’t matter the color of the cat so long as it catches the mouse.

Highway reconstruction, bridge safety, reservoir protection, modernization of trucking and rail lines and water supply improvement all come to mind as possible nonideological approaches to government action. Of course the key words are “government action.” Congress used to be made up of Republicans and Democrats who, although they disagreed on many broad policy issues, often reached accord on common projects. Individual members of the different political spectrums of each party could join in on certain programs but not others. But compromise, to be successful and not a sellout, begins with strong advocacy and protects a party’s core values and future progress.

Chances are that bipartisanship will not work given the political climate of today. It looks like senators capable of compromise such as Bob Corker of Tennessee will soon depart the Senate. There’s a great divide within the majority party and its leadership must bridge that divide before it can even look across the aisle to enlist Democratic support. Issues like budget and tax reform, let alone the Dream Act, do not seem open to easy joint action.

A year from now, the country will face congressional elections. In the past, such elections were usually based on local issues. But elections lately have also reflected the great national divide. Would a bipartisan approach help either side or frighten adherents back into partisan corners waiting for the bell? We’ll see.

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