Congress left for its holiday recess with a modest nod toward bipartisanship: For the first time in years, a budget based on real negotiations between Republicans and Democrats passed both houses and was signed into law.
Optimists might see that agreement as the turning of a new leaf by this historically unproductive Congress. Realists see a pause before the next standoff. Republican House budget chief Paul Ryan, a co-author of the budget deal, is already predicting another showdown over raising the debt limit. Other GOP leaders say the budget deal was a tactical move, aimed at making sure no government shutdown distracts voters from the "disaster" they predict for Obamacare.
This is especially unfortunate because there is some opportunity for bipartisanship in this Congress - if its leaders would give it a chance. Some examples:
On the surveillance overreach of the National Security Agency, both parties are split. Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Calif., chair of the Intelligence Committee, has been the NSA's chief enabler, while Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who sits on the same committee, is its leading critic. Libertarian Republicans would also like to clip the NSA's wings, against the opposition of national security hawks in their own party.
Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has formed a bipartisan coalition around reinventing the Glass-Steagall Act, teaming with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and others to "make banking boring again." She is working with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and some House Republicans on reforming housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Both initiatives are opposed by the Obama administration and, of course, the Wall Street lobby.
A bipartisan consensus is forming on criminal justice reform. One bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and tea party favorite Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would begin rolling back mandatory minimum sentences. Equally promising: Senate Judiciary Committee chair Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., are said to be working quietly behind the scenes on dramatically reducing the size of the federal criminal code.
Some say there's even hope for tax reform. Retiring Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means chair Dave Camp, R-Mich., are said to be laboring quietly, but intensely, to draft a bill that can win support on both sides of the aisle.
The main obstacle for these initiatives is a Republican strategy, in place since President Obama took office, that assumes passing any legislation that pleases Democrats would be a setback for Republicans. That attitude is supported by a tea party caucus that seems to think that the Congress that legislates least, legislates best.
It's that kind of thinking that has brought public approval of Congress to historic lows. Public opinion could change in 2014, and well-intentioned lawmakers could accomplish some of the things they promised in their campaigns, if party leaders would make a New Year's resolution to give bipartisanship a chance.
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