By Jon Hurdle
In Washington, Delaware lawmakers are working hard to break the partisan logjam.
Amid a prevailing view in the country that nothing gets done in Congress because politicians are more concerned with scoring partisan points than passing laws, Delaware’s two U.S. Senators and one Congressman, all Democrats, have recently reached across the aisle to work with their Republican colleagues on bills and other initiatives, proving that reports of the death of bipartisanship may be greatly exaggerated.
The results have included a bill to create jobs by amalgamating different parts of President Obama’s jobs package and other proposals from both sides of Congress; a bill to help home-buyers purchase their first property, and a measure to boost hiring by allowing companies to take on unemployed workers for a fraction of their normal cost.
A more conciliatory approach has also been applied to the ‘Supercommittee’ in its last-minute efforts to slash the federal budget deficit. In that case, senior Delaware Senator Tom Carper has teamed with Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to urge the panel to adopt legislation allowing line-item vetoes and the reduction of waste and fraud in Medicare and Medicaid, respectively.
While many ideological differences remain, the Delaware lawmakers say they have found enough areas of common ground with their GOP counterparts to allow specific pieces of bipartisan legislation to be crafted. They are hopeful that the spirit of cooperation seen on those measures can find its way into other areas.
For Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware), cooperation rather than confrontation produced a bill on job creation crafted with fellow freshman Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Tea Party-backed Republican whose politics, Coons admitted, are very far from his own.
“We showed that even a very conservative Republican and a moderate Democrat can be willing to work together to find compromise and common ground,” Coons told Delaware First Media.
Senators Coons and Rubio on Nov. 15 introduced the American Growth, Recovery, Empowerment and Entrepreneurship (AGREE) Act, which takes elements from the President’s jobs plan, and his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, along with plans from both parties, to write a bill designed to boost job creation.
Among its proposals are extending research and development tax credits; easing restrictions on employment-based immigrant visas, and eliminating taxes on some small business stock through 2014.
“We can dwell on the partisan politics that have gridlocked this body and this town for much of our first year in office, or we can look forward and find ways we can work together to help Americans confront this jobs crisis,” Coons said in a statement.
Coons said the bill had its roots in a conversation he had with Rubio mid-October in which the two agreed to look for elements of the President’s jobs bill – some of which has been criticized by Republicans — they both endorsed.
“We challenged each other to find ideas we could agree on, and we came up with seven different ideas,” Coons said.
Some Republicans want to dispel a reputation for obstructionism, especially since the influx of Tea Party-backed candidates to the House in 2010, and are quick to do so away from the glare of publicity, when they feel less constrained to toe the party line, Coons said.
“When you have a chance to talk to them privately, away from the cameras, they confess they are very frustrated with the partisanship and they want to make progress,” he said.
If Congress is seeing an outbreak of bipartisanship, it could be because members are watching the financial and political chaos in Europe, and fear the U.S. will suffer the same hits from the bond market if ‘Supercommittee’ members don’t cooperate to bring federal debt to a manageable level.
“It’s a prediction of what will happen to us if we fail,” said Coons.
For U.S. Rep. John Carney (D-Delaware), a more bipartisan approach to doing business began in the spring when he approached Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Renacci, a colleague on the Financial Services Committee, to explore possible cooperation on policy.
“I was impressed by his comments,” Carney said. “They were not politically inspired.”
The initial meeting led to a lunch, and then to a meeting with two other Representatives from each side. There’s now a group of 12 lawmakers who meet for breakfast once every week or two to discuss policy. Their talks have produced four bills, two of which have been introduced in the House.
The tone of the meetings is always civil and polite, Carney said. The ground rules are that there’s no such thing as a bad idea, and that members may not dismiss ideas out of hand.
The resulting bills reflect common ground identified from across the ideological spectrum. The Encouraging More Productive and Lasting Opportunity (EMPLOY) Act, for example, seeks to drive down unemployment without additional cost to government while helping job seekers make more money than they would on unemployment benefits.
Under the plan, a company that hires a qualified unemployed worker would receive a government subsidy of no more than 90 percent of what the jobless person would have received in unemployment benefits. In return, the company – which is required to pay at least minimum wage — would agree to pay the new hire at least 110 percent of what he or she would have received on unemployment.
The proposal meets Republican goals of creating private-sector jobs without increasing public spending while promoting Democratic ideals of providing a helping hand for the most vulnerable without replacing the benefits paid to the unemployed.
Also emerging from the breakfast group is the Creating Homeownership Opportunity Act, introduced by Carney and Renacci along with Reps. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), Mike Quigley (D-IL), and Daniel Webster (R-FL).
The bill seeks to boost the depressed housing market and deplete the current national glut of unsold homes by helping new homeowners save for a down payment on their first home at a time when rising down payment requirements of 20 percent can be out of reach for many potential home buyers. It would create a pre-tax savings program similar to a Health Savings Account (HAS), with a contribution cap of $10,000 a year by participants.
While other bipartisan groups in Congress work on specific issues, Carney’s group is the only one which takes a cross-party approach to a range of issues, he said. He’s hopeful their progress will have a ripple effect.
“We think if we get a few things done, we can prove to people that it can be done,” he said.
Carney said members of the group appear to be motivated by voter disgust at Washington gridlock, and by their own campaign promises that they were going to Congress to “reach across the aisle” and get things done.
“If you are going to make that promise, you had better find a way of doing so,” he said.
The biggest test for any return of bipartisanship will be whether the Join Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or ‘Supercommittee’, can, by the deadline of Nov. 23, find a way of reducing the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion, forestalling automatic spending cuts to domestic and military programs that will go into effect if it fails.
Senator Tom Carper (D-Delaware) was one of around 150 lawmakers from both parties and both houses who urged the committee on Wednesday to “go big” and find deficit-reduction measures far beyond than its minimum mandate of $1.2 trillion.
Among the hopeful signs of a bipartisan consensus, Carper said, is a willingness by some Republicans to embrace the need to raise revenue as well as cut spending.
“There’s a small but hardy band of Republicans who favor additional revenues,” Carper said.
And more lawmakers from both parties are now ready to drop partisan politics, he said. “I see a greater willingness in the Senate in the last couple of months to reach across the aisle.”
Any new spirit of cooperation is likely because both sides recognize the voters are running out of patience. “The electorate are not happy about the gridlock,” Carper said. “They want us to work together to get things done.”