Political life is often marked by milestones. A president’s first 100 days are often regarded as a forecast of his ultimate success in office.
This year, the Republicans took control of Congress with solid majorities in both the House and Senate. During January, they were in charge for one month out of the 24 months in this Congress, and there had been 99 votes in the two houses combined, close enough to the “first 100” milestone.
And these votes may signal how Congress behaves through its term. They offer little reason to hope for bipartisan compromise.
In its 49 votes, the Senate has dealt almost exclusively with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. After an initial failure to cut off debate, the bill faced a myriad of amendments. The Keystone votes provide a good picture of how the Senate is working.
The GOP wants to force approval of the pipeline to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, because President Obama has failed to take any action either way.
In the previous Senate, controlled by Democrats, Majority Leader Harry Reid blocked the consideration of amendments to bills. He feared the GOP would propose amendments to embarrass any Democrat who opposed them in an effort to prevent the bill from being watered down.
Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised he would take a different course and allow amendments, and he has kept much of that promise. The Democrats could offer amendments and to try to embarrass Republicans, who wanted no changes to the bill.
The Democratic strategy seems not to have worked, suggesting that Reid was wrong in the first place. Amendments ranged from protecting funding for home heating assistance to mandating that Keystone oil reduce dependence on Middle East supplies to requiring only American-made materials in the pipeline. They were defeated.
Only rarely would a Republican senator break ranks. On the home heating amendment, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire voted with the Democrats, because of the heavy reliance on home heating oil in their states.
On the final Keystone vote, nine Democrats lined up with the GOP. Almost all came from states where they could be vulnerable to a GOP challenger. They would not risk their seats out of loyalty to the president.
Only in a couple of cases did two senators from the same state and party split – all Democrats. In states where the senators were from different parties, like Maine (independent Angus King votes with the Democrats) and New Hampshire, senators predictably split on the final vote.
The Democrats’ defection is not unusual. Their party has a long history of members freely departing from the party position, unlike the far better disciplined GOP.
Does the Keystone XL vote suggest the development of greater bipartisanship? Probably not, because Democratic support likely resulted from pressures caused Obama’s failure to act more quickly. And their resistance to amendments shows the GOP is unwilling to compromise when it sees no need.
But Obama still gets the last word. The Keystone majority lacked the two-thirds vote necessary to override his promised veto.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives, which easily limits debate on bills, churned out 50 votes on several issues. On Keystone, 28 Democrats joined the Republicans in support, but no Republican defected to the opposition.
The truly symbolic bill so far was to ban federal government funding for abortions, which is already part of the law. Only three Democrats and one Republican among the 435 representatives voted against their party. It’s uncertain if and when this bill will be considered in the Senate.
In bill after bill, a few Democrats might defect, but the Republicans held remarkably firm. The expectation that new GOP House members, elected from swing or Democratic districts, would be forced to depart from strongly conservative positions has not been realized. Maine’s two representatives always voted along party lines.
The House GOP, just as it did in the last Congress, continued to pass bills that have no chance of becoming law. These proposals might not make it through the Senate and almost certainly could not withstand Obama’s veto.
Instead of trying to prove it can govern by passing compromise bills, the House seems to be determined to continue as the conservative stronghold. That could sustain continued partisan wars through the 2016 elections.
Bipartisan compromise would depend on some Republicans breaking ranks, but GOP majorities make deals unnecessary and compromise unappealing. The new Congress’s first month suggests only more of the same partisan conflict.