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This isn't your tea party's Congress

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) greets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) before the bipartisan signing of the Medicare Access CHIP Reauthorization Act.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) greets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) before the bipartisan signing of the Medicare Access CHIP Reauthorization Act.
Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images

This is what it looks like when Washington works.

The Senate's on track to confirm Loretta Lynch. Republicans and some Democrats are working to give President Obama fast-track trade authority. Last week, Obama signed a bipartisan law — negotiated by House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — that ensures doctors won't see cuts to the payments they get for treating Medicare patients.

"I just want to thank everybody for showing that Republicans and Democrats can come together and put aside partisanship for something important — not just on small things, not just on the must-dos, but on things that actually make the country work better," Obama said Tuesday at a ceremony celebrating the "doc fix" bill. "We did not, in this case, simply kick the can down the road; we solved a problem, and we made life better for a lot of people. And we crossed one of Washington’s perennial 'cliffs' off the list for good. And we proved that’s possible. And my hope is that that helps build a little more momentum to get some other good stuff done."

The hand-shaking, back-slapping, and bill-signing is driven by the oldest force in politics: self-interest.

Lame ducks can't fly

McConnell Win McNamee/Getty Images

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

For years, that imperative compelled Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell to oppose Obama at every turn, which rallied the Republican base, raised money, and solidified McConnell's standing within his own party. "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," he told the National Journal in 2010. McConnell couldn't knock off Obama, but his strategy paid dividends in the form of a Republican majority in the Senate.

Now his self-interest has been flipped on its head. McConnell ran against Obama, and voters handed him the keys to kingdom. But to prove he can govern, Obama's onetime nemesis will have to work with the president. If he can't do it, the chances of Chuck Schumer running the Senate next year go up and the odds of a Republican winning the White House go down.

McConnell no longer has to worry that working with Obama will give the president an electoral boost. No matter how much you assist a lame duck, you know he'll never fly.

At the same time, Obama is freed from the burden of worrying as much about the electoral hopes of congressional Democrats as he does about his own agenda. He'll probably never say it that way. But it's the truth. He's willing to divide Democrats and turn unions against them to try to win a Pacific trade deal. With time running out on what he calls the "fourth quarter" of his presidency, Obama has to work with McConnell and Boehner if he wants to add to his legislative legacy.

While Obama's halcyon period came when Democrats ran the House and the Senate, his next best construct might actually be the one he has now: a Republican-led Congress anxious to get things done. It worked for Bill Clinton. And it's hard to imagine a more epic episode of national governance failure than the last four years, when Congress played debt-limit roulette and shut down the government for two weeks.

What’s been a little more surprising, and refreshing, is the way Boehner and Pelosi have gotten into the act. They couldn’t be more different politically or personally: the Republican scion of a Cincinnati-area family that owned a bar and the Democratic daughter of Baltimore political royalty. And yet there Boehner was, at a doc fix ceremony, delivering a smooch to Pelosi’s cheek.

None of this has escaped the attention of the players themselves or their aides

boehner bill signing

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Suddenly, big-ticket items that looked like zombies have a little color in their cheeks.

Beyond the big headlines, there’s a bipartisan consensus forming on how to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law, and there are signs of support on both sides of the aisle for taxing foreign earnings of corporations to pay for a new highway bill. Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican candidate for president, and Barbara Boxer, the iconoclastic California progressive, have introduced a bill together based on that concept.

Of course, details matter, and there’s a giant gulf between the 6.5 percent repatriation tax Boxer and Paul would impose and the much higher levies Obama would place on accumulated foreign profits and future foreign earnings. But it’s much easier to split the difference between numbers than it is to come to agreement when the two sides are odds on the policy.

The biggest change is in the Senate, where McConnell's intransigence and Harry Reid’s hammerlock on the floor schedule over the past four years frustrated lawmakers in both parties. Reid didn't want Republicans to force Democrats into tough votes before the last election. The amendment process was cut off. Nothing moved. Now McConnell has opened up the floor, and that’s encouraging Republicans and Democrats to cobble together coalitions both in committee and on floor amendments.

"One of the side benefits of all the floor time is that members have more time to talk while they’re down there, and so things just start happening," said a senior GOP aide. "Budget votes ran into 4 am a few Thursdays back. McConnell fed both sides and their staffs out of his office. Stuff like that just leads to more things happening legislatively."

Obama has long complained that he didn’t have a Republican he could deal with on Capitol Hill. In the last few weeks McConnell and Boehner, who has all but hoisted a middle finger to the dead-enders in his caucus, have emerged as partners.

It’s also not lost on the Republican leaders that their party’s poll numbers are in the tank while Obama’s have been gradually improving. His average approval rating last week was 46 percent, up from 40 percent last November, according to Gallup.

Recent polling by CNN shows Clinton well ahead of her field of Republican rivals for the presidency, leading each candidate tested by more than 10 percentage points. Republicans on Capitol Hill need a change in dynamics both for themselves and for their party’s chances of retaking the presidency.

The subtler shift in the White House posture toward Congress is significant

Obama couldn’t get a trade deal done with fellow Democrat Reid in charge of the Senate — he’s said he’s a "hell no" on giving the president fast-track trade powers. The issue is driving a wedge between the Democrats, and reminding them of the pain they went through to deliver the North American Free Trade Agreement in Bill Clinton’s first term.

It’s important enough to Obama that he’s taking on Elizabeth Warren, perhaps the most influential Democrat outside of the president and likely presidential nominee, to make sure his case for free trade is heard by his supporters.

Warren is "wrong on this," he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews during an interview in Northern Virginia earlier this week.

The courtship of convenience between Obama and Hill Republicans is still in its early stages — tenuous halfway through dinner on the first date. Progressive Democrats don’t like it one bit. They don’t want to choose between their constituents and their president. But for the smaller cadre of moderates in the party, there’s a sense of liberation, according to one Democratic lawmaker who works with Republicans.

White House officials say they are cautiously optimistic about working with Congress, even as they keep plowing ahead with plans to use Obama's powers to make policy and his bully pulpit to encourage businesses, state governments, and mayors to advance his priorities. They point with pride to the states and businesses that have raised their minimum wages since Obama called for a federal hike in his 2013 State of the Union address.

There's still a lot Obama can, and will, do without Congress

obama boehner

(Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)

"Since the election, the president has had a pretty explicit strategy," Brian Deese, a senior Obama adviser, told USA Today. "And it has consisted of trying to stay on offense, trying to push where he can to move the agenda through executive action. You're going to keep seeing the president in that posture going forward."

For now, Obama seems to be treating Republican lawmakers like he once treated Iran: he'll extend his open hand when they unclench their fists.

"The president believes that Republicans and Democrats can come together and put aside partisanship to get important things done and make the country work better, so he will continue to seek opportunities to work with Congress on behalf of the American people," White House spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman said. "But with or without Congress, the president will continue to do everything in his power to deliver for working families and build on the progress we have see over the past six years."

Republican leaders in Congress don't have an easy path in front of them. They’ll likely need a budget agreement that can be adopted by both the House and Senate to get moving on policy. A budget deal would trigger the "reconciliation" process, which allows certain bills to be considered on the Senate floor without being subject to a filibuster.

There’s no doubt Obama got a lot done in his first two years, with Democrats in control of both the House and Senate. The Affordable Care Act, the stimulus law, and Dodd-Frank will ensure his policy legacy is securely in the productive category. With Republicans in charge of the House and Democrats running the Senate, he was only able to govern by crisis. His executive actions on immigration, climate change, and other issues were an outgrowth of his inability to work with Congress over the past four years.

He has still yet to show he can work with a Republican Congress to enact major legislation on a regular basis. But Obama sounded a positive note as he signed the doc fix bill.

"This was a bipartisan effort with Republicans and Democrats coming together to do something that’s smart and common-sense," he said. "And my hope is it becomes a habit."

If there’s one thing politicians are in the habit of doing, it’s serving their own interests. And, at least for now, Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill have a common interest in governing.