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Analysis: Shutdown saga offers lesson in divided government

February 16, 2019
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In this Feb. 13, 2018, photo, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., joins supporters of President Donald Trump and family members of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants as they gather to to promote their support for a border wall with Mexico, at the Capitol in Washington. When you want results in a polarized Washington, sometimes it pays to simply leave the professionals alone to do their jobs. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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In this Feb. 13, 2018, photo, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., joins supporters of President Donald Trump and family members of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants as they gather to to promote their support for a border wall with Mexico, at the Capitol in Washington. When you want results in a polarized Washington, sometimes it pays to simply leave the professionals alone to do their jobs. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — When you want results in a polarized Washington, sometimes it pays to simply leave the professionals alone to do their jobs.

That seems to especially be the case now in an era in which liberal House Democrats are sharing power in Washington with a GOP-led Senate and President Donald Trump.

It’s a lesson relearned after a hard-won deal on border security sailed through the House and Senate by sweeping votes on Thursday as part of a $333 billion catchall spending bill to close the books on the bitter shutdown battle.

The results defied skeptics’ expectations that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would be hemmed in by her party’s ascendant progressive wing or that Trump would be unable to bring himself to sign a bill handing him a defeat on his $5.7 billion demand for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The 300-128 House vote on Thursday revealed strong unity among Democrats — who lost the votes of only 19 of their members — and the isolation of the tea party Republicans who drove the train during GOP control of the House over the past eight years.

The border compromise, part of an 1,100-page-plus catchall government funding bill negotiated by a quartet of Capitol Hill old-timers, was driven through by a powerful coalition of Democrats and the GOP’s more pragmatic members. Nobody was wholly pleased by the agreement, but there was widespread acceptance that it represented a fair compromise and was what the current balance of power could produce.

“You’re not compromising your values. You’re just going according to democracy,” said New York Rep. Peter King, a veteran GOP pragmatist. “In divided government you have to get less than you want, and you have to accept more that you don’t want. That’s divided government.”

Or, as preschool teachers sometimes say when handing out treats: “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

While Pelosi garnered much of the attention, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was a key force as well.

After taking his cues from the White House during most of the 35-day partial shutdown, McConnell decided to largely cut the White House and Trump loose, deputizing Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. — a 40-year veteran of Congress — to work out a deal within parameters that Trump would hopefully accept.

McConnell and Pelosi don’t have a warm relationship, but they regard each other as professionals, and the huge margins of support for the bill — the Senate passed it 83-16 — show that the two seem unstoppable if their interests align.

Pelosi displayed her pragmatic streak as well, instructing her negotiators to drop a demand to limit the number of immigrants living illegally in the country who could be detained. She argued, said a senior Democratic aide, that the stance was politically unsustainable.

“I thought it was a pretty good example of the ways things should work,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “The best thing to do is to leave it to the members of Congress to work out our differences. If we do our job well, that’s what we do.”

Alexander and other veteran members of the Appropriations committees hope the agreement sets the stage for another successful round of spending bills this year. The must-do measures not only set budget priorities but also can often be used as vehicles to address mid-tier issues that can get snagged when advancing on their own. First, Pelosi, McConnell and the White House need to come together on a broader budget framework, which is doable but tricky.

But the relative comity that produced the border agreement may be difficult to replicate on other agenda items. It was forged under intense pressure, with GOP leaders and Trump desperate to avoid another shutdown. Most of the underlying $333 billion spending bill had been worked out last year, and even the border security piece pretty much resembled an agreement forged last year.

Perhaps a better indicator of the future came on Wednesday, when, in a bitterly partisan all-day Judiciary hearing, Democrats approved legislation to establish universal background checks for gun purchases, one of their top agenda items.

For 10 hours the two sides slugged it out before approving the measure on a straight party-line vote. The bill is likely to pass the whole House soon but appears destined to get buried by the GOP-controlled Senate.

While high-profile issues such as taxes, universal health care and climate change legislation are mountains that are too high to climb, especially with the 2020 presidential campaign already revving up, veteran lawmakers see promise in middle-tier topics such as infrastructure and addressing the high cost of prescription drugs.

“Look, we don’t control the Senate, we don’t control the White House, so if you’re going to get things done, you’re going to have to deal,” said Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a Pelosi loyalist.

That means legislating the old-fashioned way: Build support across the political spectrum and pass bills with a big vote.

“We’re looking to do things that D’s and R’s will support in both houses and that the president will sign,” said powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J. “The president hasn’t really vetoed anything, so I think the main thing is to get the Republicans on your side.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Andrew Taylor has covered Congress for The Associated Press since 2005.

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