WASHINGTON — While the government shutdown and accompanying fiscal crisis earlier this month gripped Congress and stood as a symbol of Washington’s dysfunction, it also provided some moderate Republicans and Democrats with a rare opportunity to talk to one another.
Compromise-minded lawmakers on both sides of the aisle told BuzzFeed the 16-day standoff — which pitted crusading tea party conservatives against Democrats determined to hold the line — left many members in the middle stuck in Congress without much to do day-to-day. The result was a series of informal bipartisan talks, far away from the TV cameras and the leadership cloak rooms, about how to avoid another similar crisis going forward.
For instance, the Future Caucus, founded earlier this year by Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Republican Rep. Aaron Schock, is already working on a set of legislative proposals that could end up being a framework for bipartisan efforts to avoid another shutdown in January, according to sources.
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger said he and a number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers have also entered into bipartisan talks during the shutdown fight in the hopes of finding areas of common ground.
“We’ve got a lot of that going on during [the shutdown] amongst members,” Kinzinger said last week as the crisis was winding down.
“In fact, I’ve been part of a number of bipartisan groups talking about, ‘OK, well, if we give this plan from the Democrat perspective, what don’t you like about it, what do you like about it,’ and try to find that area that we think we can find agreement. So that’s been a real positive out of all of this, all sides working together.”
The idea of Republicans and Democrats sitting down together may seem foreign in today’s political climate, when even being seen in the same room with a member of the opposite party can prompt a primary challenge.
But for decades, the fevered ideological warfare between the two parties in Congress was tempered by weekends spent socializing in Washington — as opposed to today, when lawmakers generally return to their home districts when business is done.
The rise of the Republican majority in 1994 led to a substantial thinning of the GOP’s moderate ranks. By the early 2000s, those who remained were left on the outside looking in at a party dominated by cultural and fiscal conservatives who had little to no interest in compromise or working with Democrats.
That trend, and a similar one on the Democratic side, has been accelerated by successive redistricting efforts that have redrawn the vast majority of lawmakers into electorally safe but ideological rigid districts that make negotiating a fool’s errand.
But the shutdown, at least temporarily, may have changed that. Speaker John Boehner kept the House in session throughout most of the shutdown, and with nothing more than show votes to take and little committee activity going on, lawmakers frustrated with the intransigence of their respective wings started talking to one another.
Schock said he believes that at least for some in his conference, the shutdown has taught them a lesson in the need for bipartisanship. “I would say that the number of people who thought this was a good deal at the beginning is much smaller than the people who think it’s a good deal today,” he said, insisting that his leadership needs to abandon conservative rabble-rousers who are unwilling to compromise or face Washington’s reality.
Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued Boehner’s decision to let conservatives’ efforts to use the shutdown to repeal Obamacare has also aided the cause of bipartisanship.
“I would suggest the speaker is stronger than he was four weeks ago … I think he’s in a better position by letting out the air of the proverbial balloon,” Josten said Monday.
Of course, this isn’t the first time moderates, particularly within the GOP, have pushed for more compromise and less gridlock over the last 18 years. But those calls for bipartisanship largely fell on deaf ears.
And while the emergence of a bipartisan governing coalition of moderates is, at best, a long shot, that’s not stopping this new crop of lawmakers from trying.
In fact, Schock said he sees hope for bipartisanship in the House, and not just on the budget. “I think we need to do more than the budget. The budget is big. But if we’re going to do immigration reform, if we’re going to do any of the other big things that our country needs us to do, then they’re going to have to be bipartisan. So I’m imploring my leadership to find a coalition of the willing that want to pass legislation that can ultimately become law,” Schock said. “Simply passing legislation that isn’t going to go anywhere is a bit of a pointless exercise.”