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New Congress Opens With Display Of Bipartisanship

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's website

Bipartisanship appeared to be in unusually ample supply on the first day of the new Congress.  That’s not to say that Republicans and Democrats agreed on everything as the 114th Congress got underway -- they didn’t. But still there were moments of bipartisan camaraderie not seen on most days in Congress. 

One of the more significant individual displays of bipartisan friendship came in the Senate, where U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., escorted U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill,, for Durbin’s swearing-in ceremony for his fourth Senate term.

Kirk said in a statement that he was honored to stand with Durbin “as we always have, without partisan divide and together for the people of Illinois.  The issues that matter for us are the ones that directly impact our vibrant state, and I pledge to continue working with my friend here in the Senate.”

While the two have their policy differences, they also have a close working relationship.  Durbin stood by his junior senator after Kirk suffered a stroke about three years ago and Kirk took a somewhat low-profile in campaign events for Durbin’s challenger in last year’s election.     

House votes for 'Heroes'

The biggest example of bipartisan cooperation for the day came in the House where lawmakers passed their first bill of the new session on a unanimous vote of 412. 

The Hire More Heroes Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, allows small businesses to hire veterans without having to provide health-care insurance under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The measure applies to veterans who already have health insurance through the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs.    

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., sponsored the Senate version of the bill in the last Congress, both as a freestanding piece of legislation and as an amendment to another bill.  On Tuesday, Blunt re-introduced the measure in the Senate and released a statement thanking Davis for sponsoring the House bill.

“Those that have selflessly served to protect America deserve every opportunity to find good-paying jobs when they return home,” Blunt continued.  “I’ll keep fighting to push forward on this and other important bills that will help create more jobs and opportunity for veterans and all Americans.”

A few bumps

In both chambers, Democrats objected to provisions of new Republican-backed rules that will govern how Congress conducts business for the next two years.

In the Senate, Democrats blocked an attempt by Republicans to schedule a committee hearing for legislation authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline.  Durbin, the assistant democratic leader, said the move would have bypassed the traditional process of creating committees in a new Congress.  “Committees don’t usually spring into action until they are created,” said Durbin. 

Creation of the Senate’s committees for the 114th Congress is scheduled to take place Wednesday, according to Durbin, with both the Republican and Democratic caucuses backing resolutions and then taking action in the full Senate.

Republican congressional leaders plan to move quickly on the Keystone XL Pipeline legislation, possibly before the end of the week.  Both of Missouri’s U.S. senators, Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill, support the pipeline’s construction.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday that President Barack Obama would not sign a Keystone bill should one reach his desk. Barring a change, passage of a pipeline bill would set up the first veto of the new Congress. What’s not known is whether Republicans can win support from enough Democrats to override a veto. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said that Republicans do plan to pass several bills with bipartisan support, but they also plan to pass legislation likely to be vetoed by the president to establish clear policy differences ahead of the 2016 elections.

Back in the minority

Durbin says he hopes Democrats “will be more effective, productive and cooperative in the minority than the Republicans were when we were in the majority.” His comments came in response to reporters’ questions about discussions between Durbin and McConnell Tuesday.  “We want to reach agreement as often as possible.”

Durbin said it remains to be seen whether the transition to a Republican majority will be a smooth one for the Senate.  “I applaud (McConnell’s) commitment to more amendments and more debate. We were stymied many times where amendments had nothing to do with the subject on the floor, threats of filibusters, that sort of thing,” Durbin said, while speaking to reporters.

About three-quarters of the Senate’s Democrats are experiencing life in the minority for the first time and Durbin says he hopes they find effective ways to use their power. “Members have to realize we’re into a more spirited, open opportunity here, according to Sen. McConnell,” said Durbin.

Durbin is leading the Senate Democratic caucus while U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the chamber’s minority leader, is recovering from injuries from an exercising accident. Durbin compared Reid’s injuries to those one would suffer in a car accident with blunt trauma to the right side of his face and several broken ribs.  Durbin says he is encouraged with how Reid is recovering:

“He’s a tough, tough fellow and he’s bouncing back, but he’s doing it carefully because he’s been told by the doctor don’t push too hard, too fast.”