Bipartisanship In Washington: Can It Really Be Achieved?

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In his first State of the Union address, President Obama called on lawmakers to jettison partisanship and work for the common good. But can Congress meet in the middle on issues like the economy and health care when the principles at stake are so contentious? Host Michel Martin talks to two Congressmen, from both sides of the aisle —Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut,and Rep. Scott Garrett, a Republican from New Jersey.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we hear from our listeners in Back Talk. That's just ahead.

But first, bipartisanship. It's the holy grail of American politics, at least at the moment. Here's President Obama in his first State of the Union address earlier this week.

BARACK OBAMA: Just saying no to everything...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: ...may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: So let's show the American people that we can do it together.

MARTIN: But can Democrats and Republicans just get along? We're joined now by Congressman Scott Garrett. He's a Republican representing New Jersey's 5th district. We've been checking in with him from time to time on issues facing the Congress. He joins us on the line from the House Republican retreat in Baltimore. His colleagues have invited the president to join them there today.

And Congressman Jim Himes, he's a freshman Democrat representing Connecticut's 4th congressional district. We've spoken with him from time to time throughout the year as well. He's with us from Stamford, Connecticut. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

JIM HIMES: Hello, Michel.

SCOTT GARRETT: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So, Congressman Garrett, let me start with you. You're at the House Republican retreat in Baltimore. The president is scheduled to speak today. I think this visit was announced before the State of the Union address. Do you have any idea of how this invitation was offered or how this meet and greet came about?

GARRETT: Yeah, it was offered before the State of the Union address. I remember maybe three weeks ago, we were in conference and the leadership indicated that they thought it would be a good thing to reach out to the president, to have him able to come here. Of course it would be after the State of the Union address to allow both of us to have a little bit of a dialogue.

You know, the president said at the State of the Union that he wanted to work with us and that we shouldn't be the party of no. That discouraged me because I know I personally handed him months ago a document with over two dozen Republican ideas on health care. And our leadership has personally presented him a number of ideas as well.

So, when he said at the State of the Union, we've never given him anything, he doesn't know what our ideas are, I know I personally handed it to him. So, I have a question for him when he comes here today, didn't he read any material that we gave him?

MARTIN: When you say that it would be a good thing to invite him, just what is it that you hope to accomplish with this meeting and why do you all feel that it's important to do?

GARRETT: Well, it's important to do because we have already said from day one that we have ideas. We'd like to work with him. We've given him the ideas. He has said the same thing in public. But also in public he constantly says, as he said during the State of the Union, that we haven't presented him anything. We don't have any ideas.

So, this is a good opportunity to say, Mr. President, do you remember what we gave you? Mr. President, do you remember when our leadership sat down with you at the White House? Will you now begin to actually read our documents? Will you now begin to consider what we've presented to you, since you said you now want to work with us?

MARTIN: Okay, Congressman Himes, I haven't forgotten about you. I just want to ask Congressman Garrett one more question before we turn to you. Can you give us one idea that you've given the president that you think he should consider? That would not just be of interest to Republicans but also of Democrats?

GARRETT: There's big ones, little ones - the little one - I mean, middle- sized one, I guess you'd call it, sits in my head right now. For example, with insurance premiums to keep them low, allow somebody like me in New Jersey to be able to buy insurance across state lines and have more flexibility on those without mandates coming down from the federal government. There's one.

Allow association health plans. There is another one. Allow deductibility to be on the same level for individuals as they are for corporations. There's another one. It goes on and on and on. We've given him different ideas and they're not partisan issues, they are just different ideas.

MARTIN: Congressman Himes, one of the reasons we wanted to call you back is that you're a freshman. And, of course, most people campaign on the promise that they are going to work across party lines to actually get things done. And then when they come to Washington, at least in the current era, they find things very different.

So, I wanted to ask you, just as a newcomer, what are your impressions of the sort of the state of bipartisanship? Do you find that there is a willingness to work across party lines? And if there isn't, whose fault do you think it is?

HIMES: Well, yeah, good question, Michel. And, you know, I'm only in my first year in Washington, so I'm still under the crazy idea that facts are important. And let me give you one fact to answer your question.

In the negotiations around the Senate health care bill, 116 Republican amendments, 116 Republican amendments were debated and voted on, 24 were approved. That's a fact. When the stimulus discussions were occurring, the president visited the Republican caucus in the House more frequently than he visited the Democratic caucus in the House.

And what my good friend and colleague, Mr. Garrett, said about allowing competition across state lines in the health care bill, Section 309 of the House health care bill sets up regional compacts whereby health insurance companies could compete in regions that chose to create one common set of regulations.

So, the facts are that there has been quite a lot of reaching out and listening to the Republicans despite the fact that they say that there has not been. That's just factually incorrect. But the issue is really, and the challenge is, I think that the Republican Party is sort of - and I'm not going to say that they are always the party of no, they do engage at times - I think they're pulled between two instincts.

One instinct is to engage and to find common ground, which I fear is all too often set aside for another instinct that was best summarized by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina when he said if we can derail health care we will break this president. And I think that the minority is sort of pulled between those two instincts. And on any given week and on any given issue, they go one way or the other.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking to Democratic Congressman Jim Himes from Connecticut, Republican Congressman Scott Garrett from New Jersey. We're talking about the president's call for more bipartisanship in attacking some of the country's big problems.

And, Congressman Garrett, what about Congressman DeMint's comment that that is one that is often repeated as a sign that that the loyal opposition, if you will, is more interested in breaking the president rather than solving some of the country's big problems. How do you - did his comment bother you? Do you think that Congressman Himes' criticism is a fair one?

GARRETT: Not exactly. I mean Jim DeMint's comment, I think, to be taken in the context of the vast majority of or the majority of American people do not like elements of this particular plan. And so, Congressman DeMint is probably saying, like, let's try to change or derail this plan so that we can get in something else.

And it's interesting when the congressman looks to the Senate as far as, well, how many amendments were taken over there. Now, you know, in our House we try to do 100 amendments and, as you know, in the House only one of them was accepted. And when we did the stimulus, basically, there was never even a conference on it. The Democrats precluded us from even having any input.

So, you know, we can go into the numbers, we can look to see what happens in the Senate because they have a little more power than - in the minority over there in the House. In the House, none of our input was really considered. But bottom line is we want to get to the point where we have an open, honest debate, something that has not occurred so far.

The transparency that the president talked about the thing that C-SPAN said that they wanted to engage in, but were rebuffed in. And that's what where we want to get to. And that's when the president comes here, you know, I'll put the questions to him. Is the president willing now at this point finally to start considering some of those ideas?

MARTIN: Well, what did you make of the president's comment that if you're going to insist on a 60 vote majority to pass everything, you're now part of the governing leadership of the Congress and you should be held accountable on that basis. Do you think that's fair?

GARRETT: As far as the Senate goes, that's fair to the extent that he's willing to do what I just suggested, you know, actually come to the senators and also come to us in the House. He's going to probably have to have a conversation with Speaker Pelosi, though, to sit down with the leadership, sit down with the rank and file members, even the pressmen on both sides and allow them to have a give and take. And actually consider their ideas then, you know, that's a good thing.

MARTIN: Congressman Himes?

HIMES: Well, again, I think facts are important, you know, and let's look - Scott mentions the House. Let's look at the stimulus bill, you know, had the Democratic caucus had free reign and had the Democrats really, you know, not listen to the Republicans on that issue, do you think you would have seen 45 percent of the money in the stimulus bill used for tax cuts? No way in the world, right? And again, the president visited the Republican caucus during that period of time more than he visited the Democratic caucus.

Look at the left wing of the Democratic Party. They are outraged right now because they feel, you know, despite the fact that Mr. Garrett sort of is characterizing the activities of the Democratic Party as extreme, the left of the Democratic Party is actually outraged at Democrats in Congress and at the president for being far too moderate, for making 45 percent of the stimulus bill tax cuts, for not moving faster on eliminating Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

There was a very telling moment when the president said that he would move forward on eliminating the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military, not one member that I could see of the Republican caucus applauded that.

And so, I think if anything, you know, the Democrats have been far more moderate in Congress and in the policies that they have promulgated. You know, there has been no attempt to make a single-payer health care system which the far left of the party would like. The process of having the financial regulatory regime has moved cautiously, prudently and probably a bit too slowly as it has been considered.

So, I think if you actually look at the policies that have been passed and that are in the works, it's almost impossible to characterize them as extreme. And as anything other than kind of listening to the concerns of other people's, be it the Republicans or various sectors and stakeholders affected by any given industry.

MARTIN: Congressman Garrett, I gave you the first words, so I'm going to give Congressman Himes the last word...

GARRETT: Okay.

MARTIN: ...of this time. So, Congressman Himes, are you still - I guess what I want to ask is how hopeful are you or how optimistic are you that the spirit of bipartisanship that the president has called for and that, you know, members of both parties say they want will actually occur, particularly given that now we're in an election, every member of the House is up for election and so do the Senate?

HIMES: Yeah. I think that's a very good and very open question. And again, some partisanship is a really good saying, you know. The meeting of ideas and the hashing through of differences is a really healthy thing for us. I think particularly in the context of the crisis that we face right now. Economically, in terms of jobs, in terms of our financial system and, you know, Wall Street being backed to, you know, their old tricks and whatnot as we work through regulation.

You know, there are a lot of things that are required soon to be done. And so there's I think an instinct because, you know, the reality is that in both parties you've got people of very good intent and really there to serve the Republic. And my hope is that in the face of crisis, that is the instinct that prevails, rather than that instinct summarized by Senator DeMint of really, you know, setting aside the policy in favor of the politics.

Now, I've only being there a year, so I can't really handicap it for you, Michel. But my hope is that in this moment of national crisis that those who really say, let's get something done for the American people prevail over those who just want to play the same old political game in both parties.

MARTIN: Congressman Jim Himes is a Democrat. He represents Connecticut's 4th District. He talked to us from his home office in Stanford. Congressman Scott Garrett is a Republican representing New Jersey's 5th District and he joined us from the Annual House Republican Retreat in Baltimore. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking to us and a good weekend to you both.

GARRETT: Thank you very much.

HIMES: Thank you very much, Michel.

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