A bipartisan group of 14 senators worked behind the scenes
The group is seven Republicans, six Democrats and one independent
McCain: "This group of 14 (is) committed to staying together" to work on other issues
Congressional approval ratings hovered at historic lows. Republican and Democrats hurled insults at each other and among themselves. The political circus in Washington even made its way to “Saturday Night Live: – in a sketch featuring Miley Cyrus, at that.
It seemed that nothing would break through the partisan stronghold that left Capitol Hill at a standstill in the weeks leading up to and during the partial government shutdown.
But at the same time some lawmakers were loudly pledging to dig in and hold their ground, a bipartisan group of 14 senators was working behind the scenes, churning out a plan to get the country back on track and avoid a possible default.
Seven Republicans, six Democrats and one independent came together after Sen. Susan Collins of Maine stormed to the Senate floor on October 5 – a Saturday – and urged the chamber to actually work together, to “stop fighting and start legislating.”
The three-term senator, who’s up for re-election next year, got a call from two other Republicans that same day, Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. From there, they got to work.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia became the first Democrat to sign up.
He was followed by lawmakers from all corners of the country: Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Arkansas; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota; Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana; Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota; Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire; and Angus King, I-Maine.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Jeff Flake of Arizona also hopped on board.
A week later, with more members in their ranks, the group presented its plan to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rejected it.
But the Senate was not back to square one. Some of the plan’s elements were roped into the final agreement reached by Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday, the eve of the deadline to avoid default.
Like the new agreement, the Collins’ framework reopened the government, moved the deadline, included income verification provisions to prevent fraud in Obamacare and called for a budget conference between the two chambers of commerce.
Most importantly, the plan seemed to light a fire under Senate leaders, and signs of progress and talking finally began taking shape in the days following the rollout of Collins’ plan.
“Today is a big loss for blame-game politics,” Pryor said Wednesday from the Senate floor, with his cohorts also on the floor.
So who are these lawmakers? And why were they able to work together?
Four of them joined the Senate this year. Six of them are women. Three face re-election in a year. One of them is retiring.
All of them are considered moderates in their respective parties, with many coming from states with a mixed political climate. Republican Collins’ home state of Maine, for example, has voted for a Democrat in the last six president elections. Manchin, Donnelly, Heitkamp, Shaheen and Pryor are from states with large swaths of conservative voters.
For these senators, the political risk of lining up with “the other side” isn’t so high. But with the country growing more polarized, lawmakers who find themselves in those situations are becoming a rare breed.
As they stood together Wednesday, the group promised it was only the beginning. Their next battle? The era of brinkmanship.
“This group of 14 people (is) committed to staying together to address other issues of importance,” McCain said Wednesday. “This isn’t the last crisis that we’re going to go through. But I think we have the framework for the kind of bipartisanship that the American people need and want.”
While it certainly opens them up for criticism from some who don’t like seeing their representatives mingle with the opposition, King said that’s the price to be paid to get things done.
“That’s what leadership is. It’s the willingness to bear criticism, to stick (one’s) neck out,” he said.
In a subtle blow to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Klobuchar said the definition of “courage” is working across the aisle. “It’s not gonna just be standing here by yourself making a speech with no one out there.”
Cruz famously carried out a 21-hour talkathon on the Senate floor in the final days before the shutdown.
Acknowledging that sports analogies are cliches, Murkowski nonetheless argued that moving the ball down the field is all about teamwork.
“Just one person – you don’t get anywhere,” she said. “We cannot work together as individuals and expect to accomplish the work that is needed … we’ve got to be working together.”
Both the House and the Senate will have a chance to work side-by-side when select members go to conference to hammer out a long-term plan in the coming months.
The question is whether they can invoke the same spirit demonstrated by the recent gang of 14 – because if they fail, the circus starts all over again.