During Africa Summit, a Rare D.C. Species Is Spotted: Bipartisanship

WILMINGTON, DE - NOVEMBER 02: U.S. Senator-elect Chris Coons (D-DE) (R) stands next to his wife Annie Coons (L) while speaking at his victory party on November 2, 2010 in Wilmington, Delaware. Chris Coons beat out Republican challenger Christine O'Donnell to win Vice President Joe Biden's old Senate seat. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 4, 2014, 2:10 p.m.

In oth­er parts of Wash­ing­ton, par­ti­cipants in the U.S.-Africa Lead­ers Sum­mit were talk­ing Monday about how to save the en­dangered pygmy hip­po­pot­amus, the black rhino­cer­os, and the Ethiopi­an wolf. But on Cap­it­ol Hill, something even more threatened was on dis­play — bi­par­tis­an­ship. There, in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Rus­sell Sen­ate Of­fice Build­ing, Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats met with the vis­it­ing Afric­an lead­ers here for their three-day sum­mit with Pres­id­ent Obama.

At­tend­ance was held down be­cause of the con­gres­sion­al re­cess, but 23 mem­bers signed up for the ses­sion, 16 Demo­crats and sev­en Re­pub­lic­ans, ac­cord­ing to the of­fice of Sen. Chris­toph­er Coons, D-Del., chair­man of the For­eign Re­la­tions Africa Sub­com­mit­tee. For Coons, the event simply makes pub­lic what he sees as the real­ity of Amer­ic­an policy-mak­ing af­fect­ing the con­tin­ent.

“One of the great things about U.S.-Africa en­gage­ment is that it is truly bi­par­tis­an in the in­terest and sup­port in the Sen­ate,” Coons told re­port­ers. “The le­gis­la­tion we need to move, the is­sues that de­serve our at­ten­tion, have as much sup­port and en­gage­ment from seni­or Re­pub­lic­ans as Demo­crats.” Be­cause of that, he said, there has been great con­tinu­ity in Amer­ic­an policy to­ward Africa from Pres­id­ent Clin­ton to Pres­id­ent George W. Bush and, now, to Pres­id­ent Obama. “Vir­tu­ally every one of Pres­id­ent Bush’s ini­ti­at­ives re­l­at­ive to Africa are con­tin­ued or strengthened. And Pres­id­ent Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has simply built on it,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Ari­zona, the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the com­mit­tee, did not at­tend the re­cep­tion Monday night. But his of­fice stressed it was be­cause he is back in Ari­zona, not be­cause of dif­fer­ences with Coons. In a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al, he boas­ted of “a sol­id work­ing re­la­tion­ship” with Coons, adding that “[I] ad­mire the lead­er­ship he’s shown on Africa is­sues.”

Twenty years ago, that would have been an un­re­mark­able state­ment in Con­gress. Today it is dif­fi­cult to find many com­mit­tees where there is as much comity. “There is just broad agree­ment on most of the is­sues that come be­fore the sub­com­mit­tee,” said Jam­ie Ser­lin, a spokes­man for Coons. She noted there are few dif­fer­ences between the House and Sen­ate ver­sions of Power Africa, Obama’s pro­pos­al to double the num­ber of people with ac­cess to power in sub-Saha­ran Africa. Both parties also sup­port the re­new­al of the Afric­an Growth and Op­por­tun­ity Act, first signed in­to law by Clin­ton. Bi­par­tis­an sup­port also re­mains strong for the Pres­id­ent’s Emer­gency Plan for AIDS Re­lief, first cham­pioned by Bush.

“It is kind of a unique is­sue area where there are shared goals,” ex­plained Ser­lin. “Across the board, Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans want peace­ful, demo­crat­ic na­tions, strong trade part­ners and de­vel­op­ment in Africa. These are shared goals.”

The shared goals have even led the White House to do something it rarely does these days — praise Con­gress. “Con­gress has played an enorm­ous role on a bi­par­tis­an basis in sup­port­ing Africa policy,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser for stra­tegic com­mu­nic­a­tions. “It is im­port­ant to note that in an en­vir­on­ment in Wash­ing­ton where there’s not a lot of bi­par­tis­an agree­ment, Africa has been the true ex­cep­tion.”

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