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Bipartisan dreams are alive, up to a point

albert hunt

Albert Hunt

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

The conventional wisdom has it that Washington policy gridlock is now back; a Democratic House of Representatives and an enlarged Republican Senate majority aren't going to have anything in common except political bloodlust.

That's probably the best bet, but it's not necessarily so.

Senior House Democrats have already started talking about quick action they expect to take on measures that have popular support and would put Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump on the spot.

These include:

■ Protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions from losing insurance coverage or being forced to pay more for it.

■ Raising the minimum wage.

■ A big spending program to improve roads, bridges, airports and other public infrastructure.

■ Shielding from partisan sabotage the investigation into links between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and Russian election meddling by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

■ A limited immigration bill that would provide a pathway to legal status to "dreamers," U.S. residents who were born overseas and brought to the country as children.

■ Ethics-reform measures affecting Congress and administration officials.

Most of these items have had some Republican support, were winning campaign issues this fall and were backed by many of the new members elected from swing districts. If passed by the House, most would bring pressure on Senate Republicans to take some action, even if opposed by the White House. Legislative successes would provide Democrats with a reply to charges of obstructionism, and new House members won't want go home empty-handed for their first spring break.

There are several hurdles to successful legislative action, starting with inexperience: only four House Democrats have ever served as committee chairs and 60 percent of them have never been in the majority. Critical, too, will be whether Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi survives opposition from within her caucus to her bid to become House speaker. An inexperienced speaker would make it harder to get things done.

Pelosi also is one of the few leaders who could fend off complaints from the party's left flank that a modest opening agenda isn't progressive enough.

The Democratic plan is to first pass an ethics package covering both Congress and the executive branch. That would put Democrats on record behind politically popular ideas like reining in lobbyists and restricting conflicts of interest. More controversial would be a measure adding sexual orientation and gender identification to the list of categories protected from discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Health care presents another potential opportunity for bipartisan cooperation. Scores of Republicans campaigned this fall on a promise to preserve safeguards for people with pre-existing medical conditions as were put in place by the Affordable Care Act — even though many of them had previously voted to dilute them and Republican-run states have sued to overturn them.

Proposals to increase the federal minimum wage, which hasn't moved from $7.25 an hour since 2009, have commanded public support. The issue will be how much to raise it. Moderates talk about going to $12.50 an hour over five years; liberals want take it to $15. 

On immigration, politically savvy Democrats like the idea of adopting a measure proposed by Republican Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and Pete Aguilar of California that would protect dreamers from deportation and give them a pathway to citizenship, while also providing money for border security but not for Trump's Mexican wall. It stops short of the kind of comprehensive immigration overhaul that liberals want, but it has much wider support. 

A lot of the Democratic agenda would stall in the Senate and be rejected by the White House, but an infrastructure measure would have a realistic chance. A House infrastructure bill probably would provide about $1 trillion for bridges, roads, airports, mass transit and broadband service. Most of the money would come from the government, with some provided through public-private partnerships. The hardest part would be securing an agreement on how to pay for it.

All bets are off if Trump tries to sabotage Mueller's investigation or a parallel one by the U.S. attorney's office in New York. That could be accomplished by replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the probe of Trump's ties to Russia because of his own undisclosed contacts with a Russian diplomat, or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who took over supervision of the investigation when Sessions stepped aside.

Undermining Mueller would set off a bitter political war, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the administration of President Richard Nixon. Bipartisanship? Forget about it.

Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. 

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