The onus falls particularly hard on Boeh-ner, whose struggles to control his conference are well documented. More than any other player in Washington, he will determine whether anything gets done this year. How he decides to proceed could rest on how frequently he’s willing to leave conservative colleagues out in the cold and, consequently, how far he’s willing to risk his speakership.
The good of the party, and not his seat of power, propelled Boehner’s decision to bring the superstorm Sandy relief bill to a vote earlier this year, when it passed with just a minority of support from Republicans. That combination—Democrats and the moderate wing of the House GOP—is the pathway to enacting a sweeping set of bipartisan agreements.
A week after the storm vote, a large bipartisan majority passed a three-month extension of the debt ceiling. “It is hard to see this Congress being viewed as a bipartisan one, but we have seen a glimmer of light on the recent bipartisan vote to extend the debt ceiling,” said Ron Bonjean, a onetime aide to the Republican leadership.
Maintaining that momentum in the House won’t be easy, and it could require Obama’s personal leadership. Getting Boehner to take such a perilous route could depend in large part on successful cajoling from the president. And on this subject—the relationships among Washington’s top leaders—discussion of a deal being cut becomes sharply pessimistic.
The two men’s relationship is described as personally friendly, but professionally it has produced nothing but dysfunction. What began with the debt-limit negotiations of 2011 culminated in last year’s failed fiscal-cliff talks. Boehner has vowed never to negotiate with Obama one-on-one again.
Washington has had a litany of successful speaker-president relationships through the years. Think Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton —or Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill in the 1980s. But Obama and Boehner haven’t been able to find a workable formula. “There is zero trust between Boehner and the president, and trust is what’s necessary to get deals done,” said Mike Hacker, a former Democratic leadership aide. “It’s not just mutual interest.”
The belief among the GOP that the president won’t act on good faith in the current negotiations is further straining the broken relationship between the two men. Rather than trying to cut a deal with Republicans, Obama might work only toward defeating them in next year’s midterms, to try to re-take the House. At that point, assuming his party retains the Senate, congressional Democrats would be poised to pass legislation as they did during Obama’s first two years in office. “In the matrix they’re crafting to take back the House, there’s no function for bipartisanship,” said Mike Ference, a former aide to Cantor.
Obama’s recent actions haven’t put GOP worries to rest. His inaugural speech was long on urging the country to adopt a progressive agenda but short on emphasizing the need for compromise. After completely ignoring House Democrats in 2012, the president announced plans to hold eight fundraisers for them this cycle. Obama, in the eyes of the GOP, seems less interested in working with Republicans than in rolling over them.
The atrophying of strong relationships on Capitol Hill is only one of many reasons polarization is so entrenched. Certainly the proliferation of powerful political organizations, such as the free-market Club for Growth, and the influence of partisan media have also played a role. In the bigger picture, the decades-long popular sorting out between the parties and their ideology has probably mattered most: Conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northeastern Republicans are now nearly extinct.But another suggested cause of increased polarization, gerrymandered districts, remains hotly disputed in the political-science community. Research shows that members’ voting behavior changes only slightly, if at all, with the partisan makeup of their district; lawmakers support whatever their party decides, according to this argument.
The disrepair of personal relationships in Washington plays only a minor role in the absence of party comity. But more so than other long-term factors, this is something the current players can control. As legislators try to craft difficult bipartisan compromises, a willingness to cross party lines, even at the risk of criticism from colleagues, is crucial. It’s why Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s inclination to work with Democrats on immigration reform or Democratic Rep. Ron Wyden’s collaboration with Ryan on health care were so widely praised; such efforts attract positive attention because they are so rare.
Political enemies have worked together for the common good before. Boehner and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy collaborated on No Child Left Behind. And Gingrich got along famously with Clinton, Breaux said, because the two men respected each other. “Even when he was trying to impeach [Clinton], they were still able to overcome that and get things done,” Breaux said.
He added: “I think that lack of personal relationships in the legislative body is absolutely the most harmful thing, exceeding any philosophical differences. It can overcome stringent disagreements.”
Hill Democrats are openly encouraging Obama, whom they saw as failing to reach out during his first term, to rebuild those relationships. “What kind of commitment from the White House will there be to work the Congress aggressively, daily and continuously?” wondered Glickman, who is now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It can be painful to do that, because presidents don’t like that part of the job. I’m not sure this president likes it either.”
Unless the tone improves, Hill-watchers are doubtful about any legislation’s opportunity for success. “These are very contentious times,” Ference said. “There are significant policy areas where some bipartisanship can be achieved, but I don’t know how we do any of it in the environment we have right now.”
What eventually passes and what doesn’t will come down to the individual pieces of legislation. Observers believe that immigration reform, already being crafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators in the upper chamber, has the greatest chance for passage, because of the high stakes involved for the GOP. But many caution that success will still hinge on the yet-to-be determined details. Murkier still are the chances of passing gun-violence measures—particularly banning assault rifles or high-capacity magazines, and strengthening background checks—not to mention a grand bargain on deficit reduction.
What, exactly, would qualify as successful bipartisanship this year? Certainly, passing comprehensive measures on immigration, guns, and deficit reduction will need a shocking, even historic level of cooperation among the bickering parties. But perhaps congressional approval of even one of those issues, while turning down the volume of usual partisan rancor, might qualify as a success, at least relative to recent sessions. Especially if lower-profile but still important items, such as the farm bill, can pass quietly into law without much wrangling between the parties. That might be all anyone can reasonably hope for on Capitol Hill.
It won’t be Clinton and Gingrich redux, but even a faint echo of that period would stand out these days. “I’m not looking for heaven on earth,” Glickman said. “But I am more optimistic.”
CORRECTION: A graphic accompanying this story originally indicated that Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., would not seek reelection in 2014.