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Senate Republicans say they’re ready to talk.
As the 118th Congress convenes today, much of the attention will be focused on the House and how a raucous, narrow GOP majority will highlight conservative priorities and take on the Biden administration. But receiving far less scrutiny are Senate Republicans, who even though in the minority and less combative, know they may well hold the key to any bipartisan deals to come from a divided Capitol Hill over the next two years.
Republican senators see opportunities for more bipartisan dealmaking even as some of their most veteran negotiators have retired, they told Bloomberg Government.
“I think we’re going to be the adults in the room,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “I think we recognize over here that we’ve got to find common ground.”
Most legislation in the Senate will requires 60 votes to break a filibuster and advance. While Democrats will now control 51 seats, after John Fetterman (D-Pa.) won what had been a GOP-held seat, they will still need at least nine Republicans to pass any significant legislation. Those bills range from the annual appropriations measures to the defense authorization bill, the need to raise the federal debt and pass a new farm bill.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters shortly before the Senate adjourned last month that he plans to reach out to moderate Republicans in both chambers in hopes of working together over the next two years. He said some are from his home state of New York, where Republicans flipped a number of seats that had favored President Joe Biden in 2020.
“Not all the Republicans are MAGA,” said Schumer, referring to the hard-right lawmakers aligned with former President Donald Trump.
He acknowledged many House Republicans now in the majority will have less interest working with congressional Democrats. But he also said GOP lawmakers saw results in the midterm elections that showed candidates following hard-line positions did not fare well in the most competitive races.
“I think it’s going to be a lot more productive than people think,” he said.
Bipartisan efforts since Biden was sworn in nearly two years ago often took root in the Senate and relied on the deal-making skills of moderate Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).
Their successes included protecting same-sex marriage (Public Law 117-228), infrastructure funding (Public Law 117-58), investments in semiconductor manufacturing (Public Law 117-167), and changes to the congressional counting of Electoral College votes.
Collins in a statement on the enactment of her electoral count reform bill last month said the “historic” bipartisan deal came about through “numerous meetings and debates among senators, along with conversations with a wide variety of election experts and legal scholars.”
But some of the key lawmakers involved in brokering those compromises are leaving. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who helped craft the infrastructure and same-sex marriage bills, is retiring. So are top appropriators like Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
“We’re going to miss them,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee and a new member of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) leadership team. “But, you know, where there’s a vacuum, somebody else rises.”
Senate Republicans also face less electoral vulnerability in 2024.
Cramer noted just 11 members of their conference are up for re-election next year, and they all represent states that in the last decade have turned more red. Senators are typically more reluctant to tackle controversial issues if they’re in cycle, he said.
“I’m not likely to shy away from that stuff myself, I’m just not built that way,” said Cramer, who is up for re-election to a second term next year. “So I think the climate’s right.”
Republicans expressed more concern about politics surrounding the top of the ticket in 2024. Lawmakers will be looking to use the next two years to make the case for their party’s eventual nominee to win the White House in 2024.
Before that, they face what could be a bruising intra-party battle if some Republicans challenge Trump, who has announced he’s running again. Several GOP senators are seen as eyeing potential White House runs, among them Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
“Presidential politics are going to begin to rear their ugly head,” said Romney, a Trump critic and former presidential nominee up for re-election next year, “and that may make progress more difficult.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has sought to work with Democrats to break the longstanding impasse over immigration, sees bipartisanship as a requirement in divided government.
But he acknowledged he’ll be looking to House Republican leadership to set the agenda and that legislation will likely have “a more conservative bent” than it has had during two years of unified Democratic government.
“I believe in transactional bipartisanship,” Tillis said. “I don’t do bipartisan stuff just to be happy.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org