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Why there’s been a surge of bipartisan activity in Congress

Lawmakers have been working across the aisle on a slew of issues.

Lindsey Graham, Chuck Schumer, and Kirsten Gillibrand stand in front of three American flags.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, flanked by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), speaks during a news conference following the passage of the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act on Capitol Hill on February 10, 2022, in Washington, DC. 
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

In the past few weeks, Congress has been doing something that feels surprising: weighing a number of bipartisan bills on issues including sexual harassment and stock trading.

Given Republicans’ willingness to block many of Democrats’ biggest priorities, this sudden influx of bipartisan activity seems unexpected. In reality, it follows longstanding historical patterns.

One of the reasons lawmakers have turned to bipartisan bills is that more partisan measures have been unable to pass in recent months. Previously, the Freedom to Vote Act, legislation focused on voting rights protections, failed on the floor because it was blocked by Senate Republicans. The Build Back Better Act, Democrats’ sweeping social spending and climate measure, is also currently on pause as lawmakers scramble to figure out what Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) will accept.

In the interim, lawmakers have focused their attention on legislation that could potentially get 60 votes in the Senate. (Since there are 50 Democrats in the Senate, they need at least 10 Republicans to vote with them to overcome a filibuster on most bills in the upper chamber.)

“People realize we’re not going to get rid of the filibuster. If you want to get something done, you’ve got to work together,” Manchin told NBC News about the spike in bipartisan legislation.

This trend is in line with past instances of unified government, says University of Utah political science professor James Curry, the co-author of a book on the subject called The Limits of Party. The party in power “tends to spend a lot of time passing things that are ambitious and trying to figure out how to do things on a single-party basis, until they meet reality,” says Curry.

As a result, bipartisanship winds up being more common than people think it is — even when one party holds full control of Congress.

“This is the norm,” Curry told Vox. “When it comes to making laws and policies, bipartisanship has ruled the day because it’s a necessity. Our system is set up to make it extremely hard to do things on a single party basis.” In their book, Curry and Princeton University political science professor Frances Lee note that most laws that have passed since the 1970s have been bipartisan.

The bills under consideration also underscore the limits of bipartisanship.

Broadly, they target issues that are important but less likely to be “hot-button” ones. On topics like police reform, gun control, and immigration, for example, this degree of bipartisanship would be difficult — or impossible — to find. The bipartisan measures lawmakers are looking at now are on less contentious subjects: postal reform, elections reform, and investments in the United States’ supply chain.

These discussions also highlight the trade-offs that come with bipartisan lawmaking — many policies inevitably get watered down. For example, Democrats and Republicans recently reached a deal on a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, legislation aimed at combating domestic abuse and sexual assault. The agreement, however, cuts a pivotal gun control provision advocates have long pushed for, because Republicans opposed it.

The bipartisan legislation that Congress is working on runs the gamut from foreign policy to investments in innovation and technology. Some of these bills are getting close to passing, while others have yet to be voted on in either chamber.

Here’s a rundown of a few of the bills that Congress is currently considering, organized by where they are in the process. Collectively, they illustrate what’s possible when lawmakers govern in a bipartisan way, as well as the constraints that come with doing so.

Bills that have passed both chambers

Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act: Last Thursday, the Senate passed a bill that bars companies from requiring employees to settle sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations through arbitration, a private process that has historically advantaged companies over their employees. That’s meant survivors weren’t able to take their claims to court and publicize them, allowing perpetrators to bury these cases with private settlements. Since the bill has already passed the House, it will next head to President Joe Biden’s desk, where he’s expected to sign it into law.

Bills that have been passed by at least one chamber

Postal Service Reform Act: This legislation aims to help the US Postal Service, which has been losing money for years, cut costs. The bill would do so by eliminating a requirement that the agency prefund retiree health benefits, and it would mandate that all employees enroll in Medicare, a move that’s expected to reduce the USPS’s premium expenses. All told, it’s expected to save the USPS up to $50 billion over a decade. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had planned to hold a vote on the bill as soon as this week, though opposition from Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) has delayed the bill.

What happens next: The Senate will likely pass this bill in early March, given Scott’s opposition.

America COMPETES Act and the Innovation and Competition Act: Both the House and Senate have now passed legislation aimed at investing in the US’s semiconductor production and supply chain, and help the US compete with China and other nations. The House’s version is known as the America COMPETES Act, while the Senate’s version is called the Innovation and Competition Act.

What happens next: The two bills now head to conference committee, where lawmakers will work out the differences between them. Senate Republicans have been skeptical of the House version because it includes more provisions to address climate change, while House Democrats felt like the Senate’s Innovation and Competition Act didn’t do enough on that issue. Both chambers will have to vote on a compromise deal after a conference agreement is reached. This process is expected to take weeks, setting up the final bill for passage later this spring.

There’s a bipartisan deal — but it hasn’t passed either chamber yet

Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act: Democratic and Republican senators have announced a compromise on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which provides funding for groups combating domestic abuse and sexual assault. Efforts to close the “boyfriend loophole” in the law have prompted opposition from the National Rifle Association as well as Republicans, and it’s been left out of this agreement as a result. This loophole enables domestic partners to access firearms even if they’ve been convicted of domestic violence as long as they aren’t married to or living with the victim, and don’t share a child with the victim. Currently, nine Senate Republicans back this compromise, though lawmakers will need one more for the bill to pass. This deal has not passed either the House or the Senate yet.

What happens next: Democrats say they’ll continue looking for a 10th Republican senator to support the deal, which won’t be able to pass the upper chamber until they find one.

Issues that have bipartisan support, but there’s no deal yet

Russia sanctions: Democrats and Republicans are both interested in sanctioning Russia to deter the government from taking additional military action in Ukraine, though lawmakers have yet to settle on a final approach. Disagreements have centered on when to impose sanctions, with Democrats pushing to do so after Russia has taken military action, and Republicans arguing sanctions should come beforehand.

Congress members and stock trading: There are also multiple proposals aimed at barring Congress members from purchasing and trading individual stocks, but a measure has yet to be considered on the floor. There have been slight differences in these proposals: Some would apply the ban to spouses of Congress members and their dependent children as well as lawmakers themselves, while others are narrower in scope.

Electoral Count Act: A bipartisan group of lawmakers is still discussing what changes to make to the Electoral Count Act, which governs the process for how Congress tallies up the electoral votes from each state. Key reforms that lawmakers hope to address include clarifying the vice president’s role in the counting of electoral votes, raising the threshold needed for lawmakers to contest a state’s election results, and strengthening protections for poll workers.

Build Back Better and a Supreme Court confirmation are on deck

In addition to these bills, two of Democrats’ biggest priorities — the Build Back Better Act and a Supreme Court confirmation — are on deck in the coming months as well.

The Build Back Better Act, a sweeping social spending and climate measure, has seen little forward motion since last year, after Manchin said he wouldn’t be able to back the legislation as is. Now Democrats are working to figure out which policy areas could actually secure Manchin’s vote.

Manchin has signaled support for some provisions, such as the climate policies in the bill — which previously included $555 billion worth of investments in clean energy tax credits, clean energy jobs, and infrastructure resilience — though he’s stopped short of explicitly backing them.

“I think that the climate thing is one that we probably can come to agreement much easier than anything else,” Manchin said last month.

Because of Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s (D-NM) absence, there likely won’t be floor action on Build Back Better until mid-March. Similarly, since Biden has yet to announce a Supreme Court pick, and Democrats would need Luján’s vote if support falls along party lines, that process has yet to begin.

By the time there’s more progress on both these fronts, it’s possible, though far from guaranteed, that Congress will have checked off a few of the bipartisan priorities it’s working on.

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