Voters said in November they wanted bipartisan cooperation in Congress next year. They got their wish early as this year’s Congress move toward its end.
They may have also helped create a Congress next year composed of four political parties not only the deadlocked Republicans and Democrats. Both of the major parties have split in two.
The GOP divide developed after the 2010 election of candidates backed by the Tea Party movement. Having made strong commitments in their campaigns to stick to their promised conservative positions, they have refused to accept the compromises necessary to pass bills.
Their power came partly from an informal rule that the GOP would not pass bills unless they had the support of a majority of the majority. In other words, unless bills could gain the votes of most of the Republicans, they would not even be considered.
At first, longer serving Republican House members, worried about primary challenges from tea partiers, went along with their hard line. But, by the 2014 congressional elections, traditional Republicans, not moderate but willing to compromise, beat Tea Party challengers and regained their confidence.
Republicans won control of both houses of Congress, and many of their leaders believe that winning the presidency in 2016 means showing the party can govern and that governing requires compromise.
Across the aisle, Democratic legislators have been criticized by some of their supporters for being so worried about the apparent popularity of GOP conservatism that they either adopt similar views or do not pursue traditional party positions favoring an active government role in matters ranging from environmental protection to bank regulation.
Some Democrats attribute their party’s losses in this year’s congressional elections to many of its candidates having taken up anti-government positions.
As a result, a split has emerged between so-called progressive Democrats, who see an important role for government, and moderate Democrats who seek compromises with the GOP, recognizing the congressional balance of power will favor the Republicans for at least the next two years.
The role of each of these four “parties” became clear during last week’s votes on adopting a federal budget. Failure to do so would have forced the government to shut down, which most senators and congressmen, to say nothing of the president, did not want.
The compromise required that Democrats accept GOP add-ons. One eases controls on big banks, allowing them to undertake risky investments with federal backing, making a federal bailout again possible. The other allows a ten-fold increase in the size of financial contributions to political parties.
The House voted first, adopting the budget by a narrow 219-206 vote. Among the Democrats, 57 voted for the bill, to support both compromise and President Obama, who had announced he could accept it. On the other side, 67 Republicans, who failed to get the bill to block Obama’s immigration policy, opposed the compromise.
Maine representatives, both Democrats, voted against the bill, because of their opposition to the GOP amendments.
The same story unfolded in the Senate in its last days under Democratic control. The budget passed 56-40. As in the House, the opposition came from a mix of members of both parties, with the GOP seeking an attack on immigration policy and the Democrats opposing the relaxed bank regulation.
Both Maine senators, Republican Susan Collins and Independent Angus King, supported the budget compromise. They have campaigned as compromisers.
The development of two split parties in Congress could lead to further compromise deals as the Republicans try to pass bills that the Democrats won’t filibuster and Obama will sign. In that way, Congress will slide to the right, rather than moving as rapidly as the tea partiers want.
Republicans, in the Senate majority, may be willing to spurn the tea partiers to show they can govern. Among the Democrats, the compromisers and those who view making deals with the GOP as selling out, will test their relative strength.
The intra-party congressional struggles are likely to be reflected in the presidential candidate selection process.
The GOP, rejecting tea partiers, could lean toward selecting a traditional conservative like Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, or John Kasich, the current Ohio governor, to show it wants to govern and not merely score debating points.
While Hillary Clinton seems likely to gain the Democratic nomination, she may face opposition from the progressives, perhaps led by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Whether that pulls Clinton to the left or costs her the nomination remains to be seen.
Whatever happens, the four-way split promises an unusual political scene in the next two years.