WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell sounded downright magnanimous in anticipation of 2018, eager to work closely with Democrats even though he had cut them out of virtually every big-ticket deliberation during 2017.
“We’re going to be looking for areas of bipartisan agreement because that’s the way the Senate is,” Mr. McConnell, the majority leader, said this month as Congress fled town for the holidays.
The truth, as Mr. McConnell well knows, is that he has little choice. The certification of Doug Jones’s victory as the new Democratic senator from Alabama and his imminent arrival in Washington mean Mr. McConnell will be presiding over a Senate split 51 to 49 between Republicans and Democrats, a margin providing him scant room to maneuver. It will be almost impossible for congressional Republicans to do anything meaningful without at least modest support from the Democratic side.
Another strong motivation exists as well. Congressional Republicans are heading into a dangerous midterm re-election that will serve as a referendum on their management of Washington as well as President Trump’s public standing.
After a year spent trying to pass major overhauls of health care and taxes with no Democratic support, Republicans want to be able to present themselves as reasonable and responsible, fully capable of working across party lines for the common good. It is both an important message to send to independent and swing voters, who broke from Republicans in 2017 elections, and part of the Washington cycle — mix in a little bipartisanship to dilute the heavily partisan nature of much of what takes place in the capital. Whether it pays off this time will depend upon what — if anything — gets done and how sincere the efforts are.
Democrats say they are open to Republican overtures and would like to see bipartisan progress on immigration, public works and domestic spending. New sexual harassment rules for Congress are also emerging as an area of consensus.
But given what has transpired over the past 12 months, Democrats are skeptical about a major transformation in the coming 10 before the November elections. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader, suggested real cooperation would require a wholesale attitude adjustment on the part of Republicans and Mr. Trump.
“Senate Republicans have spent a year writing bills without any Democratic input that hurt the middle class and pleased their wealthy, hard-right benefactors,” Mr. Schumer said. “There is a chance for bipartisanship, but only if Senate Republicans reverse course, tell their hard-right benefactors they can’t dictate policy, and genuinely work with Democrats.”
Democrats already see signs of trouble clouding the prospects for common ground. As they seek to make permanent the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which grants protection to immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, Mr. Trump is already imposing conditions that Democrats say they will not accept.
In aTwitter post on Friday, Mr. Trump said, among other things, that “Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border.” Democrats have consistently said that the Trump border wall funding is a nonstarter, and they are certain to object to his increasing insistence on ending other immigration programs they support.
As for infrastructure, a national program to rebuild the country’s aging transportation system has always been considered a prime opportunity for the two parties to come together to create jobs and bolster economic growth. But so far, Democrats note, the White House has been alone in developing an infrastructure plan that the administration says it intends to roll out in January. Top Democrats say it is not true bipartisanship to devise a major program, make it public and then expect Democrats to be won over by seeking adjustments as opposed to bringing in both sides from the start.
Other flash points could threaten bipartisanship. Senate Republicans and the White House remain frustrated with the pace of executive and judicial branch confirmations and would like to accelerate the process by slashing debate time for many nominees. The dispute could intensify as top appointees depart during the second year of the administration, putting new pressure on the Senate to fill those vacancies.
But Democrats, eying a potential Senate takeover, are not likely to want to give much ground on nominations if they stand to gain more control over who fills those jobs in 2019. If Republicans try to force the issue through a unilateral rules change, it is safe to say that would not help foster a bipartisan atmosphere.
In addition, Speaker Paul D. Ryan has suggested that Republicans might want to build on their tax overhaul success by pursuing changes in social spending programs that Democrats consider untouchable. Mr. McConnell, though, quickly put such topics off limits, saying that any changes in those programs would have to be done on a bipartisan basis — an impossibility given the Democratic refusal to go along.
Republicans are also counting on the new tax law to bolster their election prospects by putting more money in the hands of workers at the start of the year. But the law got off to a rocky start with confusion and anger around the country over whether homeowners could prepay their property taxes to avoid new tax limits, and Democrats will continue to pound that issue, angering Republicans.
Despite their minority status in the House and Senate, Democrats have significant leverage. With Republicans in search of bipartisan credibility, Democrats can hold out for legislative deals that meet their demands or sit back and accuse Republicans of going it alone and abandoning any pretense of bipartisanship.
Political risks loom for both sides. For Democrats, working with Republicans and Mr. Trump could provoke recriminations from their voters who don’t want the party to compromise with Republicans in any way.
For Republicans, cutting deals with Democrats on issues such as immigration — an area where many Trump voters want Republicans to hold firm — could elicit a strong backlash and sap the enthusiasm of conservative voters, which Republicans will need to survive the midterm elections with minimal damage.
Those realities could combine to make the effort to cooperate — to “do bipartisan,” in the memorable words of the president — an unattainable goal in a political atmosphere where partisan habits are so deeply ingrained.
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