President Biden and Congress ended the year with a very good bipartisan budget deal to fund government through the end of the fiscal year (through September 30, 2023) and get other bipartisan priorities passed in the lame duck session of the current Democratically controlled Congress. It is good news for democracy with reform of the Electoral Count Act. And it is good news for bipartisanship, because the bipartisan Senate super-majority behind this lame duck bill has been productive in the first two Biden years, could continue to be productive in the coming 118th Congress. Many expect chaos next year, and chaos is likely but there is reason for hope that a more productive strategy will emerge to be the sane alternative to chaos.
Our book ‘Divided We Fall” details the raging budget battles of 2011-2016 that started when the Republican “Young Guns” and “Tea Party” won control of the House in 2010. Although 2023 looks a lot like 2011, the difference between then and now is the lessons Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell learned about passing bipartisan legislation through the Senate that cannot be blocked in the House even with Tea Party Republicans, renamed the Freedom Caucus, and now MAGA Republicans functionally in control of the chamber.
The period of budget impasses, government shut downs, and threats to default on the national debt ended when Obama, Biden, McConnell, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid crafted and passed a compromise budget through the Senate with such a strong bipartisan vote that House Speaker John Boehner allowed it to come to a floor vote where it was passed by a bipartisan majority, even though it cost Boehner the Speakership.
McConnell has continued to use this strategy to pass a long list of bipartisan bills in the 117th Congress including the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act, burn-pit veterans’ health, NATO expansion, support for Ukraine, the Respect for Marriage Act, and today, the full year FY2023 budget in this Lame Duck session. This could be a roadmap for an alternative to the chaos and stalemate most are expecting in 2023-2024.
The next GOP Speaker of the House may not have the power to block bipartisan legislation. Everyone is paying attention to the far-right Members of Congress that Kevin McCarthy needs to reach 218 votes to assume the gavel, but the moderate Republicans are also necessary to get to 218 so they have a lot of power, and they know how to use it. In 2019 the Democratic Members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus demanded Nancy Pelosi give up the power to block bipartisan legislation by passing the “Break the Gridlock Rule.” The Republican Members of the Problem Solvers Caucus can and should demand that McCarthy passes the same rule to get their moderate Republican support for his bid to be Speaker.