WASHINGTON — At a time when angry tweets, bitter debates and dueling protests dominate the news, the most powerful people in the Senate may end up being the ones who know how to get along.
With Republicans holding a narrow 52-48 majority in the chamber, it will take bipartisan compromise to pass a new health care bill, lower taxes for middle-class families and create jobs. Most major bills need a super-majority of 60 votes to pass.
The senators who hold the key to consensus are a group of about a dozen or so pragmatic, independent-minded lawmakers from both parties who are already quietly working together in private offices and committee rooms to nudge the Senate beyond ideological battles to get things done.
“In a closely divided chamber, just three or four members can exercise disproportionate influence,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. “They may not be what you would traditionally call moderate, but they’re practical-minded senators who are willing to compromise, at least on certain issues. Serious legislators will look to them for help.”
One of the biggest tests of the centrists’ increased clout could come as the Republican majority in Congress tries to keep its promise to voters to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
GOP leaders who had confidently predicted they could jam through a bill in just a few months are beginning to realize that coming up with a new health care plan is not as easy as it seemed, and that they need help from Senate Democrats to do it, Pitney said.
“At some point down the road, we’re going to need 60 votes to solve our health care problem, and most other major issues that affect people’s lives in a big way,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the pragmatists Pitney was describing.
The crucial rule that independent-minded senators will play has been underscored in recent days by efforts to both court and target them.
On Thursday, President Trump invited a group of centrist senators to lunch at the White House. The invitees included Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Jon Tester of Montana and Republican Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Topics ranged from confirming Trump’s nominees to tackling immigration reform, expanding Internet access to rural areas, and reducing opioid abuse.
“It wasn’t all ‘let’s get together and hold hands and agree on everything,'” Capito said. “The main emphasis was how do we find common ground.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he believes Democrats and Republicans can agree on an overhaul of the nation’s complicated tax code. Donnelly believes there can be compromise on trade policy that keeps American jobs from being shipped overseas. And Heitkamp said she can work with Republicans and the Trump administration on an energy policy that boosts clean coal technology and helps the miners in her state.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said senators from both parties have also been working together to pass small but significant bills, including legislation to prevent cruelty against animals and a bill to ensure that the money in the Crime Victims Fund actually goes to victims and does not become a government slush fund.
“It might seem like a small thing, but it’s a very big thing for the victims,” he said. “We’re already building a record of modest successes.”
While they search for a middle way, the centrists are being attacked, cajoled and pressured by interest groups from both ends of the political spectrum.
A critical vote will come this spring when the Senate votes on whether to confirm Neil Gorsuch, who is Trump’s nominee for Supreme Court. Senate leaders need help from at least eight moderate Democrats to get the 60 votes needed to proceed to an up-or-down vote on Gorsuch. Failing that, leaders will need support from moderate Republicans if they decide to dramatically change Senate rules to allow Gorsuch to be confirmed with just 51 votes.
President Trump greets Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons as Coons and other senators arrived at the White House to discuss his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court on Feb. 9, 2017. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm, AFP/Getty Images)
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he has gotten flak from the left for voting to confirm Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and for “keeping an open mind” on Gorsuch. But Coons said his constituents want him to solve problems, not just block Republican bills and nominees.
“I’m trying to show that I’m not going to oppose everything that President Trump does,” he said.
The bitterly partisan debates over the confirmation of Trump’s nominees has created a higher-than-normal level of tension on Capitol Hill during the past few weeks, but senators said they expect things to calm down when the major Cabinet officers are confirmed and lawmakers can return to passing legislation.
The fierce fighting on the Senate floor hit its most dramatic point Tuesday when Republicans silenced liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., after they charged that she had violated a rule barring senators from impugning the motives and conduct of a fellow senator. During the debate over whether to confirm Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as Trump’s attorney general, Warren had been reading aloud a1986 letter from civil rights leader Coretta Scott King that was deeply critical of Sessions. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., interrupted her and called a vote to silence her. Sessions was ultimately confirmed on a party-line vote.
“I know it seems very partisan right now with the nominations going through,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “But I think as that finishes up there’s an opportunity to pull together and to get some things done with a group of members on both sides of the aisle who are actually interested in results. … Our constituents are looking for results.”
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said progress is already happening in Senate committees. Carper is the senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where he said he and Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., are working on legislation to create jobs by repairing and improving the nation’s highways, bridges, airports and mass transit systems.
Corker said he believes legislation actually turns out better when neither party has a big majority and both sides are forced to work closely together.
“The solutions you come up with together will stand the test of time,” he said. “They won’t be undone when a different party takes control. They’re solutions that the American people can rely on to last.”
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