In 2017, party leaders requested fealty of legislators at any cost. The parties were at war, and loyalty was a must. But a few days into 2018, the dynamic has shifted, with leaders asking members to set aside at least some of that partisanship and find ways to work together to keep Washington running.
The legislative agenda on Capitol Hill in the first three months of 2018 is particularly daunting, and that will force members of both parties to embrace a sense of bipartisanship in ways they have not yet done since Trump was elected president.
Unless Congress acts, the government will shut down Jan. 19. On the same day, national security authorizations meant for fighting terrorism will expire. Unless Congress raises spending caps by February, automatic cuts will go into effect, including those for the Department of Defense. Both political parties say that by a March deadline, they want to reauthorize DACA for those who came into the country illegally as children. But no deal is on the table to preserve their status. Also in March, there is another deadline to raise the nation’s debt ceiling or risk the nation going into default.
Add to that the promise made to Maine US Senator Susan Collins that money will be added to “fix” the Obamacare individual markets in exchange for her vote on tax reform, along with the push for much-needed disaster relief money for Puerto Rico, where half of the island is still without electricity.
Even though Republicans have majorities in both the US House and Senate, for any of the above items to pass, they logistically will need the votes of at least some Democrats. In the Senate, most of the bills will need at least 60 votes to cut off debate. And in a 51-49 Republican-led Senate, this would mean that at least nine Democrats will be needed to vote along with a majority to move anything along.
Democrats could also be vital to passing key pieces of legislation in the House, particularly on immigration and spending bills that could see many more conservative Republicans voting against their own party’s leadership.
Given that, Democrats might have an upper hand in negotiations with Republicans in crafting what will happen in Congress this year. Throughout 2017, Republicans used a Senate procedure to make repealing Obamacare and tax reform possible without the need to convince a single Democrat to vote with them. How did they do it? By wrapping the bills into budget amendments. Now that we’re in the new year and that budget has been enacted, last year’s trick is no longer an option.
Not working with Democrats doesn’t seem like a reasonable political option if you consider the cost of inaction: a government shutdown, higher health insurance rates, fewer tools to fight terrorism and not doing anything to help the “Dreamers” or make the border more secure. Besides, if those items aren’t dealt with, there will simply be no room to take up any other items like a large infrastructure bill or entitlement reform.
So that leaves the question about how much Democrats will feel the need to work with Republicans. If things go badly, they might calculate that Republicans will be blamed because they are in charge. Further, if Democrats believe election forecasts, their party will pick up a bunch of seats in midterm elections this fall, which will mean they have incentive to stall on big pieces of legislation until next year, when they might control Congress.
Yet Democratic leaders don’t seem eager for a government shutdown either, and there are enough Senate Democrats facing tough reelection bids this year that they might give Republicans the necessary votes, thus showing voters they can be bipartisan.
But the fact remains that unless both parties pass this bipartisan test on multiple issues in the next few weeks, this could be a very rough year in Washington.James Pindell can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@jamespindellor subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp