Benefits of Bipartisanship Evident at Center Forward Discussion
WASHINGTON – It was an early summer afternoon and already the headlines were screaming.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had suffered a “striking” defeat, “capitulating” to Senate Republicans on a plan to send emergency funding to the U.S./Mexico border, “infuriating” a loud and vocal faction in her own party.
Almost lost in the race between major media outlets to craft the most incendiary headlines and leads was that the House had just voted, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion, to send a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package to the White House for President Trump’s signature.
“We needed to get the money to the border. People are suffering,” said Representative John Katko, R-N.Y., co-chair of the moderate Republican Tuesday Group caucus, which seeks cooperative solutions to critical and seemingly intransigent policy issues.
“So a bunch of Democrats and a bunch of Republicans got together … and a short time later I was on the House floor saying, ‘Bipartisanship has broken out,'” Katko said.
The New York Times described the moment as “a last-minute revolt by centrist lawmakers.” The final vote on the measure in the house was 305 to 102.
But as Katko told the story Thursday morning at “Legislating From The Middle,” a forum presented by Center Forward and hosted by The Well News at the Newseum’s Knight Center, he suggested a larger story was missed altogether.
“It’s wonky,” he said. “But it’s really important.”
Center Forward has long been dedicated to bringing members of Congress and other stakeholders together to find common ground and pragmatic solutions to the challenges facing the American people.
As Libby Greer, a board member for the organization explained in opening remarks, “we know there are many people of differing opinions but very goodwill who want to come together and get things done.”
Joining Katko onstage to field questions from The Well News founder Kristen Hawn and members of the audience were three other members of Congress committed to hashing out differences and finding the best path to serving their constituents, country, and the institution to which they’ve been elected.
They were Representatives Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition; Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., chairman of the New Democrat Coalition; and Rodney Davis, R-Ill., chairman of the moderate Republican Tuesday Group.
Rules Changes In House, A Decisive Centrist Moment
As it happened, Representative Murphy played a lead role in the “wonky” part of the story Katko referred to: she was among the authors and proponents from both parties on new rules for the House aimed at breaking partisan gridlock.
Among other things, the new rules created a “Consensus Calendar” that requires bills with 290 co-sponsors to be considered on the House floor, extended the time members have to review legislation before a vote, and mandated that a preference be given to bill amendments supported by at least 20 members of each party.
It also made it more difficult for extremists on either side of the political spectrum to “vacate the chair” and remove a sitting House Speaker.
“That’s what gave Pelosi the wiggle room to allow the border vote to happen,” Katko said.
Murphy agreed, saying because of the parliamentary rule change — a change proposed before anyone knew the outcome of the 2018 election — Pelosi “wasn’t held hostage by any one person.”
In short, policies advanced by a centrist coalition of members enabled the House to pass priority legislation in a timely fashion.
More than that, however, Murphy said six months after its adoption, the bipartisan effort is “creating the space for us to be able to get some really important things done.”
“I think [initially] some believed the rules would reduce the majority’s power, but as it plays out, I think it’s actually created a better legislative environment.”
Noting that it had been more than 20 years since the House rules were changed with the support of members of both parties, Murphy said she’s “hopeful” common ground can be found on any number of issues.
“It certainly speaks to the value of having the ability to use your unity and leverage to effect change,” she said. “What that means is we need to continue to provide a path for bipartisanship.”
Bipartisanship Gets Priorities Across Finish Line
Speaking in a general sense about what it means to be a centrist, legislating from the middle, Representative Kilmer said it comes down to finding a way to sidestep partisanship and drive legislation to make a difference for the American people.
“No matter where you live, you want to earn a good living and have access to quality health care … the question is, how do you address the priorities of the vast majority of Americans? Our approach is to strive for big, bold solutions, but also pursue those initiatives that have a chance of making it across the finish line,” Kilmer explained.
As an example of the New Democrat’s approach, he pointed to a letter the coalition sent to the president this week hoping to jumpstart talks on infrastructure.
“We think there’s a real opportunity here because no matter where you stand politically, there are still no Republican bridges or Democratic roads. This is one of the areas where the Venn diagram has some overlap between what Republicans want and Democrats want. So we should just move forward there,” he said.
The New Democrats have also asked the House leadership to allow a vote on several bills intended to lower prescription drug prices.
“Each of these bills passed out of committee with bipartisan support, but unfortunately got attached to measures that lost Republican support and so they’re now going nowhere in the Senate,” Kilmer said. “What we want is for these bills to be taken up as standalone bills, pass with broad bipartisan support, in the hope we can actually start providing relief to the American people.”
Representative Davis said he strongly believes there are ways for Republicans and Democrats to work together on meaningful legislation and those efforts must be led by people who have a proven track record doing so.
“There are ways we can all come together, and ironically, what doesn’t get enough attention is that the majority of what we do in Washington — the majority of what we vote on the floor — is accomplished with overwhelmingly bipartisan support,” Davis said.
Acknowledging the other lawmakers on the stage, he said the attribute they all share is “a willingness to stand up and buck our own leadership team to do what we think is good for the country and what’s good for the institution [of Congress].”
“Being a former congressional staff, I want to be able to make this institution work better, and I believe the rules changes adopted in January are going to change the House forever,” Davis continued.
He then went on to recall that it was only a few years ago that he, Representative Morgan Griffith, of Virginia, and former Representative Allen Messer, of Indiana, introduced their own measure to amend the House rules.
“You would have thought we were trying to give the Democrats the keys to the castle,” Davis said. “A number of committee chairman came up to me, personally, and made their feelings clearly known to me at the time.
“Today, many of those now former chairman and some of the people who are most adamant about wanting to see another rule change today, undoing some of what the Democrats have done. But that’s part of what Congress the institution is,” he said. “Far more important is that we’ve got to figure out a way to get enough votes and enough of us together to work within the institution to change it.
“That’s what the rules package adopted in January has done,” Davis said. “That’s also what the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is doing.
“So I know there is a willingness among folks on both sides of the aisle to work together, but we’ve got to make sure that the house works in a way to allow us to do that,” he said.
Davis noted that just the night before the Center Forward event, the House voted to repeal the so-called Cadillac Tax, ending the 40 percent excise tax on high value employer-sponsored health insurance.
The bill, the Middle Class Health Benefits Tax Repeal Act of 2019, made it to the floor by virtue of the Consensus Calendar.
“That was a great, great vote last night,” Davis said. “I mean, these are bills that have been languishing, not just for years, but for decades. That’s a big deal. Don’t underestimate what is happening right now and how that can empower people to move to the middle.”
Being a centrist means, “You constantly try to find ways to work together and show bipartisanship works,” Katko said. “You don’t want to abandon your party’s principles, but you try to help each other move legislation and issues forward.”
In fact, just this week, Representatives Katko and Murphy sent a letter on behalf of both the Blue Dog Coalition and the Tuesday Group urging House leaders to move quickly to address outstanding issues related to the debt ceiling and pending budget caps.
“We said, ‘Let’s work in a bipartisan manner to get a deal done and let’s not wait till the last minute to get it done. Let’s work on it now.'” Katko said. “Both Democrats and Republicans signed that letter, a lot of them, and hopefully it will have an impact. At a minimum it’s a reminder to leadership that we’re here and that while we know [they] have to worry about the left and the right, we want something done.”
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