Bipartisan Hints Emerge in Senate, Mostly on Asserting Its Power

The U.S. Capitol is seen on November 19, 2011 in Washington, DC.

The U.S. Capitol is seen on November 19, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate showed a rare burst of bipartisanship this week on the one thing that brings Congress together: Giving more power to Congress.

Republicans and a group of Democrats agreed on a proposal to require President Barack Obama to bring any Iran nuclear accord to Congress for approval. Then they cut a deal that proponents say gives Congress more power to shape trade agreements than they’ve had in the past.

This era of good feelings doesn’t yet extend to one of the most pressing pieces of business -- a confirmation vote on U.S. attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch -- but when it comes to getting the upper hand on the president, lawmakers have been willing to make peace.

“Congress is often willing to give away power on these issues, but there are moments when they push back, and, when they do, it’s often a bipartisan push because both parties realize that they have a stake in maintaining their congressional power,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Obama said the Iran legislation as revised this week won’t derail the nuclear talks with Iran aimed at reaching a final agreement at the end of June. He said Friday he’s likely to sign the bill if it isn’t significantly changed -- a switch from an earlier veto threat on the measure.

“We’ve actually seen some outbreaks of bipartisanship and common sense in Congress over the last few weeks,” Obama told reporters Friday in a news conference.

He cited the Iran legislation authored by Senator Bob Corker and a bill passed by both houses revising payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.

60 Votes

Although both chambers of Congress are controlled by Republicans, a degree of bipartisanship is required in the Senate. Republicans control the chamber 54-46, and with 60 votes needed to advance legislation, Democrats have the ability to block bills.

Until the past week, cross-aisle cooperation has been hard to come by. The Senate has been locked for weeks in a dispute over anti-abortion language in an anti-human trafficking bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to set a vote on Lynch’s nomination until the trafficking bill is passed.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Thursday that negotiators were making progress and he hoped the chamber could pass the trafficking measure -- and move on to a vote on Lynch - - next week.

The Iran and trade proposals are similar because they both would increase the role of Congress.

Nuclear Deal

The Iran measure would allow Congress to review a nuclear deal and require Obama to certify every 90 days that Iran remains in compliance.

Corker, a Tennessee Republican, agreed to Democrats’ request to reduce the time period for congressional review and drop a requirement that Iran renounce ties to terrorism before sanctions are lifted, which the Obama administration called unrealistic.

Obama wants the trade bill, which would allow fast-track approval of such agreements, to allow him to complete a deal with Pacific nations.

The measure introduced Thursday by Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and the panel’s top Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, would require Congress to vote on trade agreements without amendments. It also would compel the administration to publish regular summaries of its proposals.

Reluctant Democrats

Democrats have been reluctant, maintaining that previous trade deals have led to U.S. job losses. This week, Wyden succeeded in adding language allowing Congress to jettison the fast-track process if enough lawmakers find that the president ignored negotiating goals.

McConnell said in a statement that the trade bill “represents a real step forward on policy that has enjoyed long-standing bipartisan support, and will help expand markets for American goods and services.” He said he hoped to bring the legislation to the floor soon.

Another area where significant groups of senators from both parties are banding together to assert Congress’s authority has been in demanding that the administration seek authorization to use military force against Islamic State militants in the Middle East.

Yet little progress has been made on that proposal since the White House issued its recommended language earlier this year.

Obama on Thursday signed legislation to prevent a pay cut for doctors who treat Medicare payments and replace the Medicare formula for physician payments in place since 1997.

10th Measure

The proposal is the 10th piece of legislation Obama has signed into law during the congressional session that began in January. Others include funding for the Department of Homeland Security, an extension of a federal backstop for terrorism risk insurance and a bill naming a post office in Miramar, Florida.

At this point in the last Congress, which went on to become the second-least-productive in history, seven pieces of legislation had become law.

“One hundred days and not much has been done by the Republicans,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters Tuesday. “In a little over three months, Republicans have accomplished nothing for the middle class. Zero.”

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