The latter was the case last session, when Republicans controlled only the House. In most cases, they used this chamber to approve legislation, such as Rep. Paul Ryan’s eponymous budget, that helped define the party’s agenda but had no chance of gaining approval in the Senate (much less withstanding a veto from the White House). They were trying to wait out a president whom they believed would be sent packing in 2013.
Democrats were in a similar position from 2007 to 2009, when they controlled Congress but wanted to wait out Bush’s tenure. The lack of bipartisanship, of course, didn’t prevent major legislation from becoming law over the past 10 years. But when Democrats controlled Washington and passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, or similarly empowered Republicans approved Medicare Part D in 2003, they didn’t need the backing of the other party—and by and large didn’t get it.
This session is different. Neither party has unilateral control, and yet there is an appetite, in the first year of Obama’s second term, to make a serious attempt to legislate. The last time Capitol Hill saw something similar came in 2001 and 2002. Republicans suddenly lost the Senate when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont defected from the GOP in the early summer, but Congress still overwhelmingly approved the No Child Left Behind Act months later (although the first round of Bush’s tax cuts passed with only a dozen or so Democrats on board in each chamber). Later, the parties worked together to approve a slew of national security issues after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But drawing comparisons to that period is difficult because of 9/11; and, besides, most of Bush’s term is hardly associated with bipartisan comity. The better parallel—and the experience current optimists point to—is 1996 and 1997, which bridges the end of President Clinton’s first term and the beginning of his second. That two-year span saw agreements on a series of important issues, ranging from two big-ticket items (welfare reform and a balanced-budget agreement) to lesser-known achievements (such as raising the minimum wage).
The similarity between that period and now extends beyond the split control of government. Only a year earlier, Republicans had ridden the “revolution” of 1994 into control of Congress, when they promised to push their agenda whether Clinton approved or not. But the party ultimately dealt with political setbacks, none more damaging than the government shutdown of 1996. The public blamed Republicans, and afterward Clinton never again trailed GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole (who was Senate majority leader at the time of the shutdown) in a head-to-head matchup, according to preelection polls.
Public opinion might once again be pulling against Republicans, burnt as they were by Obama’s reelection and their unexpected losses in the Senate. In a January poll by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News, 49 percent of adults disapproved of the GOP—and only 26 percent approved. It was the worst rating for Republicans since 2008. Just as the Republicans in Clinton’s time decided their political survival depended on coming to the table, the GOP of today might do the same. “Republicans overplayed the government shutdown, and President Clinton won that battle,” said Dan Glickman, a former House member who was Clinton’s Agriculture secretary. “And, with that, he effectively used the bully pulpit to control the agenda. He gave a lot of cover for people to vote for him. It’s not the only factor, but members of Congress are much [more] likely to support a president when the people at home are inclined to support the president.”
How much Obama’s broad popularity matters to most GOP House members is debatable. With many of the president’s supporters packed into heavily Democratic urban districts, most Republicans represent safely red districts. (In November, Mitt Romney won 227 congressional districts, a majority, despite losing by 4 percentage points in the national vote.)
But Obama’s standing could weigh more heavily on House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor than on their followers; Cantor has recently attempted to rebrand the party with a softer image. While their charges’ interests are more parochial, they have the national party’s image to worry about. Popular opinion could prod the two leaders to reach agreements with Obama, especially on emotional issues such as gun control and immigration. Or, at the very least, public pressure could work to ease the disagreements that make even basic government action difficult—a factor that might have been at work when House Republicans engineered a three-month delay of the debt ceiling. “They’re hearing the message outside the Beltway that ‘we elected you people to make things work,’ ” said John Breaux, the former longtime Democratic senator from Louisiana.