Necessity Gives Rise to Bipartisanship — for Now

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When Congress convened in 2023, an empowered far-right Republican faction in the House threatened to upend Washington and President Biden’s agenda.

But the intransigence of that bloc instead forced Republicans and Democrats into an ad hoc coalition government that is now on the verge of delivering long-delayed foreign military aid and a victory to the Democratic president.

The House approval on Saturday of money for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan over angry objections from the extreme right was the latest and perhaps most striking example of a bipartisan approach forged out of necessity. The coalition first sprang up last year to spare the government a catastrophic debt default, and has reassembled at key moments since then to keep federal agencies funded.

Unable to deliver legislation on their own because of a razor-thin majority and the refusal of those on the right to give ground, House Republicans had no choice but to break with their fringe members and join with Democrats if they wanted to accomplish much of anything, including bolstering Ukraine in its war against Russia.

“Look at what MAGA extremism has got you: nothing,” Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, told Republicans on the House floor as lawmakers took their first steps toward approving the aid package. “Nothing. Not a damn thing. In fact, it has empowered Democrats. At every critical juncture in this Congress, it has been Democrats who have been the ones to stand up for our country and do the right thing for the American people.”

The moments of bipartisan coming-together are hardly a template for a new paradigm of governing in polarized times. The grudging G.O.P. collaboration with Democrats has only come about on truly existential, must-pass legislation — and typically only at the last minute after Republicans have exhausted all other options, making the coalition unlikely to hold on less critical bills and the social policy issues that sharply divide the two parties.

And the political incentives are stacked decisively against it. The cooperation with Democrats has placed Speaker Mike Johnson at risk of losing his post, making him the second G.O.P. speaker to face a threat to his job for reaching across the aisle, after Kevin McCarthy was toppled last year.

With its legislative power diluted, the furious right has been left to wield the motion to vacate the speaker’s chair as its only remaining weapon.

“This is a sellout of America,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who has taken steps to try to force Mr. Johnson from the speakership, said after the vote.

The few instances of coalition governing also have come about grindingly slowly. Mr. Johnson delayed for months as he deliberated over whether to move forward with the Ukraine element of the legislation and put his speakership on the line. It had been clear for months that the aid would pass overwhelmingly if it only it was put on the floor, and the lopsided vote totals on Saturday were probably not substantially different than they would have been if the vote had been held many months ago.

“I call it failing through the day to a good conclusion,” said Representative Patrick T. McHenry, the North Carolina Republican who temporarily served as speaker after Mr. McCarthy was deposed. “The frustration here is that we are going through the worst set of policymaking and taking an excruciatingly long period of time to go through what is an inevitable result. It is long past frustrating.”

Mr. McHenry was not the only one feeling that way. As they have watched their priorities and plans get steamrolled by the bipartisan coalition, those on the far right have grown increasingly exasperated as members of their own party align with Democrats to override their strident opposition.

“There is continued frustration with the fact that we are, frankly, allowing the House to be governed by Democrats,” said Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas. “Every single point of leverage has been given away in abject failure and capitulation from Day 1.”

While Democrats say the foreign aid package should have been approved months ago, they took some satisfaction in seeing the marginalization of the far right.

“They should have been made irrelevant a long time ago,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and a former House majority leader. “The problem was we sent a message for two or three months of indecisiveness in America. Indecisiveness, and a lack of resolve to confront an invader, an autocratic invader of a free country. And we also sent a message of lack of resolve on Israel confronting terrorists.”

Democrats have not gotten all they wanted in their often difficult and halting negotiations with the Republicans that at times threatened the financial stability of the federal government.

Mr. Biden had to agree to spending caps to avert a federal default that would have been caused by breaching the debt limit last year, setting off a spending fight that was not resolved until March. Democrats also had to swallow some spending cuts to favored programs such as I.R.S. enforcement. But in many respects, the spending parameters for the year — and in the military aid package — were shaped by Democrats, as evidenced by the strong support from the party in the end.

“I am glad to see the House finally moving forward to pass this critical legislation, which mirrors the package I negotiated and helped pass here in the Senate,” said Senator Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee.

When it came to the money to sustain Ukraine, Democrats also had the advantage of strong support in Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, who was unyielding in his backing of the financial assistance despite dwindling support for it among his fellow Senate Republicans.

Mr. McConnell’s stance ensured a sufficient number of Senate Republicans would be on board. It also meant three of the four congressional leaders — himself; Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader; and Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the House Democratic leader — were all strongly behind the aid to Ukraine along with Mr. Biden, putting immense pressure on Mr. Johnson to join them.

The intense effort to deliver the Ukraine aid also exposed the limits of the coalition approach. With Republicans demanding new border security provisions as part of any ultimate agreement, a bipartisan bloc of senators engaged in prolonged talks that in February produced a proposal that included significant Democratic concessions aimed at stopping the flow across the border. But the plan was immediately torpedoed by former President Donald J. Trump and other Republicans unwilling to let go of a powerful campaign issue.

With the fight over the Ukraine funding drawing to a close, Congress has just a handful of legislative issues it must deal with this year — a Pentagon policy measure, a farm bill, renewal of Federal Aviation Administration programs and most likely a temporary measure to fund the government through November. Given divided control of government, all that legislation will need to be advanced on a bipartisan basis.

But the steady approach of elections that will decide control of both chambers of Congress and the White House means much of the time will be taken up by the parties lobbing political grenades at one another, meaning bipartisanship could be difficult to come by in the months ahead.



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