In the days before the next Congress convenes on Jan. 3 and the inauguration of the new president, 17 days later, the House and Senate have their work cut out for them. Not only must they pass a continuing resolution on the budget to keep the government open, but also a defense spending bill. And of course, during the ongoing health and economic crisis, it would help millions of Americans to pass another stimulus bill, even if it is well below the House-passed $3.4 trillion measure last May that the Senate has declined to consider.
Despite the runoff Georgia Senate election on Jan. 5, let us presume for a moment that we will have a divided government in January: a Democrat in the White House and a Republican-controlled Senate, with Democrats holding the House. Is it possible, despite years and years of partisan rancor and attacks, that our elected representatives will come together? President-elect Joe Biden claims he can do so. But will Congress be able to pass anything to help the American people?
While it may be an act of self-absorbed naivete, I would argue yes, they can.
The most encouraging development in the past decade is the recent bipartisan attempt in the Senate to draft a package that will benefit everyone. It provides funding for state and local governments and small businesses, unemployment benefits that last until the end of March, new monies for vaccines and healthcare, and a shield for businesses, protecting them from liability suits as a result of COVID-19. Fellow Republicans of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) can persuade him to come along.
Why? Simply because a few years back, before McConnell seemed only to care about maintaining a Senate Republican majority, he was a moderate legislator working with Democrats to get things done. In his biography, “The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell,” Alec McGillis notes that McConnell once supported abortion rights and public employee unions. McConnell gradually slipped into his heralded obstructionist role, beginning under President Obama. He then, somewhat startlingly, doggedly became the lapdog of President Trump, pushing through his judicial nominations with little due diligence. Without Obama and Trump, perhaps he will again work with the Democrats.
One reason may be Joe Biden, a longtime former McConnell colleague in the Senate. But another reason could be the Republicans who joined the recent bipartisan coalition that promoted a new COVID stimulus package: Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine), Bill Cassidy (Louisiana), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) appear to be on board, and the president said he will sign it.
If 60 senators in the new Congress can overcome the filibuster and work with the next president, they may achieve a great deal on problems they want to resolve. The top of the list is obvious: winning the battle over the pandemic, with sufficient funding and scientific and medical expertise to ensure most Americans are vaccinated by June.
While continued long-term deficit spending, in my judgment, undermines the stability of the economy, an exception is always possible during a crisis. Congress and the president can devise, if needed, another stimulus package in early 2021 to help Americans in terms of unemployment, small businesses, and state and local governments.
Other areas open for Democrats and Republicans to work together are easy to identify. Infrastructure, for example: our roads, our bridges, our water systems, and the like are all profoundly in need of massive retrofitting. Democrats and Republicans can also work together to control the costs of healthcare, especially the drugs that so many Americans need.
Immigration reform may not be out of reach. After all, in 2005, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) cosponsored a bill with Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) that would have normalized the lives of nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., created a guest worker program, and strengthened border control. President George W. Bush supported it. It failed to pass.
Healing the toll taken on Americans by climate change may well be an area of cooperation as well. While the Green New Deal promoted by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) is aspirational, smaller steps could attract a bipartisan group of lawmakers to work together in favor of green energy measures. Additional areas may include a middle-class tax cut and an expansion of national service for our nation’s youth. Legislators could also find ways to combat the increasing competitiveness of China, like ensuring that our supply chains are homegrown.
Finally, Congress must act to help the many Americans without a college education who feel left out. The next Congress and the new president can guarantee ways in which they will enjoy pathways to new careers, perhaps even in the new energy areas. This will undoubtedly require a great deal of training and education.
So, maybe we have entered a new era. At least I hope so, as we look forward to 2021 as a watershed year of cooperation, collegiality, and production in the U.S. government.
Jack Fruchtman, a resident of Aquinnah, taught constitutional law and politics for more than 40 years.