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D.C. Goes Post-Partisan


Since Democrats took over the U.S. House and Senate last fall, practical political observers – myself included – have suggested that President George Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid take a page from their California counterparts who somehow figured out how to get along and advance a common agenda, despite their partisan differences.

But until last week’s immigration deal was struck, it seemed like our practical advice fell on deaf ears. Washington seemed more intent to be hyper-partisan rather than post-partisan. But that deal – like the compromise on funding for our troops in Iraq – is a sign that Washington is moving to a post-partisan way of doing business.

Although Pelosi and Reid have been slow on the uptake about the balance of powers, there are signs five months into their terms that the two are getting a hang of the process of compromise – even if it is a dirty word in Washington.

Given the start of this Congress, it seemed unlikely that I’d be typing the word “compromise” in any column about Pelosi. She, in particular, seemed to channel the obstinacy of her predecessor Newt Gingrich, focusing on a Democrat’s “100 Hour” agenda as the Demcrats swept back into power. After more than 100 days, however, not one bit of the “100 Hour” agenda has become law – threatening to saddle her Congress – the first her party has had since 1995 – as “do-nothing”.

And when it came to funding the war in Iraq, the Democrats seemed dug in. Pelosi and Reid complained that the President did not have the constitutional authority to have the funding bill exactly as he wished and that Congress had to have a say. While they were technically correct, the two Democrats, for the moment at least, seemed to forget that Congress wasn’t given a carte-blanche in the Constitution either.

The branches of government have to work together if they want to get anything done. And that’s where the lessons from California these past few years would serve our national leadership well.

Last November, voters went to the polls in record numbers to “throw the bums out”, the Republican bums that is. But when all was said and done, one Republican not only survived, he thrived on election day. Although California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fate seemed sealed with electoral defeats in a 2005 Special Election, he has managed to reach accords on global warming, raising the minimum wage and expanding civil rights with his Democratic-led legislature.

Like Schwarzenegger in 2005, George Bush is not a popular man – in California, in fact, gay marriage is twice as popular as the President – but, thankfully, polling numbers do not effect one’s constitutional powers, including the power to sign or veto legislation. President Bush reminded Congress of that when he rejected their timeline to surrender in Iraq.

What happened next was somewhat surprising. Rather than become more acrimonious with the President – as if that were possible with Senators using Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez as a punching bag – Congress started to work with the president. The first evidence of this new political savvy was last week’s breakthrough compromise on immigration reform, the first item on a “compromise agenda” I suggested back in November. And yesterday, Congress compromised again on funding for the war.

To make post-partisanship work in Washington, Congress and the President must battle forces within their political parties as they strive to make progress toward breaking down the partisan divide. Democrats must reconcile their desires to give handouts to big labor while placating the pro-immigration forces within their party while Republicans must choose between big business and anti-immigrant bigotry. When it comes to the war in Iraq, Democrats must resist their natural instincts to hand over the keys of the Pentagon to the extremist anti-war elements of their party–a lesson they seem to be learning–and Republicans must realize that they do not have a blank check to fight enemies real and imagined indefinitely.

We will see many more debates similar to the one over the proposed guest-worker program which will test Washington’s willingness to keep the compromise coalition intact.

But as California’s Governor Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez have taught us, good governing doesn’t mean you always get what you want. By relenting on a timetable for Iraq, Congressional Democrats are showing that they may be starting to understand this – just as California Democrats understand that Governor Schwarzenegger won’t approve of any new taxes.

If Washington can weather the immigration storm – and send a bill to the President’s desk this summer – the groundwork will be laid for a new era of post-partisanship which might prove the President, in the end, to be a “uniter, not a divider.” Only if Pelosi and Reid can resist the urge to be confrontational with Bush with theirs be labeled anything but a “do-nothing Congress.”

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