12 min read

Can Congress still get things done?

A look at the areas where Congress might see some bipartisan action in the near future.
Can Congress still get things done?
“Donkey and elephant in suits shaking hands outside of Capitol, digital art.” (DALL-E)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The 2024 elections are 594 days away.

As I’ve written before, a central thesis of this newsletter is that more things get done behind the scenes in Washington than most Americans think — and much of it by bipartisan agreement.

This morning, as the political world awaits for any news from Manhattan, I want to take a quick break from Trump coverage to look ahead and see what bipartisan pieces of legislation might be able to make it through Congress in the coming weeks and months.

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The Bipartimeter™: What are some areas the divided Congress could work together on?

The 117th Congress, which ended in January, represented a high watermark for modern bipartisanship, with cross-party legislation making it into law on hot-button topics like infrastructure, manufacturing, gun control, Ukraine aid, same-sex marriage, electoral reform, and veterans health care.

Has bipartisanship ground to a halt in the 118th Congress, now that the Capitol is split between a Democratic-led Senate and a Republican-led House? Actually, as I’ll cover on Friday, the president just signed two bipartisan bills into law: one on investigating the origins of Covid, the other repealing D.C.’s new criminal code.

On even larger issues, there are plenty of bipartisan talks going on right now, with various “gangs”of lawmakers holding discussions. But where might the talk become action? For answers, let’s check in in with WUTP’s patented Bipartimeter™ to assess the odds of different issue areas seeing bipartisan progress in the near future.

AUMF repeal

The Senate is working on a bill this week that would repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) against Iraq. AUMFs are Congress’ way of allowing presidents to take military action without a formal war declaration; these AUMFs were used to greenlight the Gulf and Iraq Wars.

However, the AUMFs have remained on the books even after those conflicts came to an end — and presidents have continued to use them to unilaterally authorize airstrikes in Iraq and elsewhere without congressional approval. Now a bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking to claw those war powers back.  

The AUMF repeal bill advanced through the Senate in a 67-28 vote on Tuesday; a similar measure passed the House in 2021 by 268-161, so the idea has considerable bipartisan support in both chambers. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy signaled on Tuesday that he backs the measure.

  • The Bipartimeter says: Almost certain to pass in the Senate this week, and likely to make it through the House as well after McCarthy’s endorsement.

Banking reform

The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) this month sparked immediate conversations on Capitol Hill about whether new legislation is needed to avoid similar bank failures in the future.

President Biden has called for lawmakers to make reforms, including to impose stricter penalties on the executives of banks that go under. A group of progressive Democrats introduced a measure to repeal the Trump-era bill that undid regulations of banks SVB’s size.

One idea that has gained bipartisan support: raising the cap on deposit insurance. Currently, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) only insures bank deposits up to $250,000 (although the agency eventually stepped in to protect all SVB depositors, even if they were over the existing cap).

Lawmakers from Elizabeth Warren to J.D. Vance have expressed support for lifting the cap, although few have thrown out specifics of the level they would like to raise it to.

  • The Bipartimeter says: If anything happens it will probably be something narrow (like raising the insurance cap), rather than wholesale reform or reversing the Trump-era changes as progressive Democrats have pushed for. But this is a sticky issue and it’s also easy to see Congress losing steam and doing nothing.

TikTok ban

Your favorite app for dance videos and lip-syncing? Many lawmakers are trying to ban it, concerned about the privacy implications of Americans forking over so much data to a Chinese-owned social media company. (See recent stories on TikTok surveilling American journalists and collecting data on government websites.)

Earlier this month, the White House came out in favor of the bipartisan RESTRICT Act, a bipartisan bill which would empower the president to ban technology companies based in six American adversaries: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela. Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD) are the main sponsors; Warner has said he is speaking to House Republicans about picking up bicameral support as well.

TikTok’s CEO will testify before a House committee tomorrow to plead the company’s case, but momentum is rising on the Hill to take action. Lawmakers previously worked across party lines to ban TikTok from federal government devices.

  • The Bipartimeter says: The whole issue might be avoided if TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, divests itself of the app, as the Biden administration is pushing for. And some Democrats have warned against a ban, fearful of backlash from young voters or others of the app’s 150 million active U.S. users. But if divestment doesn’t happen soon, ban legislation is slowly picking up support and it’s certainly possible to see it passing. China is a leading area where the two parties have found agreement, and neither is eager to see the other side claim an upper hand.

Rail safety

Less than a month after the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, a bipartisan group of senators sat down together and drafted a bill aimed at preventing a similar disaster.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 — authored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and J.D. Vance (R) of Ohio, John Fetterman (D) and Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania, plus Missouri’s Josh Hawley (R) and Florida’s Marco Rubio (R) — would increase the safety requirements and inspections for trains carrying hazardous materials.

Per NBC News, the bill would also “require trained, two-person crews to work aboard every train carrying hazardous materials and levy heightened fines for rail carriers' wrongdoing.”

President Biden quickly offered his blessing to the bill, as did Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D).

  • The Bipartimeter says: This measure has strong bipartisan backing, but not yet enough Republicans to overcome a filibuster. It may have a hard time passing if East Palestine falls out of the headlines, although hearings like one today with the Norfolk Southern CEO could keep up pressure for lawmakers to act.

Entitlement reform

We’ve arrived at the “third rail” of American politics: Social Security and Medicare. Although it’s impossible to talk about making changes to either program without provoking controversy, the reality is that both face insolvency within the decade — so some hard choices will have to be made eventually.

A bipartisan group, led by Sens. Angus King (I-ME) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), has begun holding meetings to at least talk about some of those hard choices. Per Semafor, the group is considering ideas including “gradually raising the retirement age to about 70” and creating a sovereign wealth fund to generate more money to pay retirement benefits via investments.

Cassidy, however, has acknowledged the difficulty of any entitlement reform passing through Congress. “Is there ever a good time? The answer is always no,” he told Politico.

  • The Bipartimeter says: Don’t hold your breath. Especially in the midst of a high-charged fight over the debt ceiling, and with Democrats poised to make protecting entitlements a central part of their 2024 message, there’s little chance anything on this topic makes it through Capitol Hill — especially if it involves raising the retirement age. It’s called the “third rail” for a reason.

Debt ceiling

It has been almost two months since President Biden and Speaker McCarthy sat down for their first meeting on the debt ceiling.

What’s changed since then? Nothing. The country continues to creep closer to a catastrophic default — the U.S. could run out of money to pay its bills as early as June — but there have been no more negotiations, or even any movement on either side, since early February.

At a chummy St. Patrick’s Day luncheon last week, McCarthy says that he asked Biden for another meeting. The president responded that he was waiting for House Republicans to release a budget proposal. (One wired Republican operative recently suggested that day may never come, as it’s unclear if there’s any budget that could win complete GOP support.)

Without a budget from McCarthy, the White House has focused its attention this week on a budget outline from the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, claiming the sharp spending reductions proposed would trigger a “five-alarm fire.”

  • The Bipartimeter says: No progress to report. Something will probably give eventually (knowing Congress, probably right up against the deadline), but it’s hard to see right now what that will be.

Indictment Watch: Trump grand jury to meet today

The focus of the political world remains trained on Manhattan, where a grand jury could make history by indicting former President Donald Trump as soon as today.

Per Fox News, the grand jury is set to reconvene today at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Fox says the jury has at least one more witness to interview before making its decision.

Related reading:  

  • The possibility of an indictment has been a fundraising boon for the ex-president: Trump’s campaign has brought in $1.5 million since Saturday, the Washington Post reported.
  • The former president has been fixated with the idea of doing a perp walk, according to the New York Times, even though it’s unlikely he would be subjected to one.
  • The FBI has observed an “uptick in violent rhetoric online” since the indictment rumors began, but so far the chatter has “lacked the actionable information, coordination and volume” seen before January 6, per CNN. So far, New York City has seen more anti-Trump than pro-Trump protesters in recent days.
  • No president has been indicted before. But one has been arrested, the Washington Post notes: Ulysses S. Grant, for speeding his carriage in 1872.

Speaking of Trump investigations:

  • A federal appeals court on Tuesday temporarily blocked a ruling by a district court judge that would require one of Trump’s attorneys to testify in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into the former president’s handling of classified documents.
  • Per ABC News, the district court judge wrote that she approved the special counsel’s request after Smith made a “prima facie showing that the former president had committed criminal violations” in the casee, leading the judge to rule that attorney-client privilege no longer applied.
  • Smith’s office reportedly showed the judge “compelling preliminary evidence” that Trump “knowingly and deliberately misled his own attorneys about his retention of classified materials after leaving office.”

Circling back: 2024 divides, Trump’s three phases

3/15/23: “A guide to the issues dividing the GOP field”

Gov. Ron DeSantis deepened his divides with Trump in an interview with Piers Morgan, taking shots at the ex-president’s handling of the pandemic: “The approach to Covid was different,” DeSantis said. “I would have fired somebody like Fauci.”

DeSantis also furthered the strategy I described in last week’s newsletter, making the case that he is more effective and electable than Trump. “I mean you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner,” he said.

Meanwhile, DeSantis is taking incoming from other potential competitors for his stance on Ukraine. Both Mike Pence and Nikki Haley have pushed back hard on the Florida governor’s claim that the war in Ukraine is a “territorial dispute,” while Chris Christie accused DeSantis of “elementary school thinking.”

3/20/23: “Trump’s last move left”

In this newsletter, and in a previous one in November, I etched out what I view as Trump’s three phases: his 2016 campaign focused on his supporters’ grievances, his 2020 campaign focused on his own grievances, and an uncertain path ahead in 2024 attempting to meld the two.

“This central question — is Trump’s political project now only about Trump? — has hung over the former president at least since 2020,” I wrote. In a piece for Politico a few hours later, Alexander Burns made the same point: “What is the great cause of Trump’s 2024 campaign, aside from Trump himself?”

Burns also wrote:

“Personality-cult politics, on its own, has never really been a winning model for Trump. At his strongest moments, he has convinced voters that Trumpism is about far more than Trump — that it is not merely a jumble of racist and sexist outbursts and weird grudges against the likes of Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly, but a worldview that might transform America. Trump’s great success in 2016 was his ability to persuade tens of millions of Americans to see him as a stand-in for their own grievances and yearnings.”

His sharp piece is worth reading, for its defense of what has become — bizarrely — a contrarian take: getting arrested will not, in fact, be a good thing for Trump. An indictment might help Trump solidify loyalty from those who already support him, Burns points out, but it’s unlikely to help him pick up any support — which he must do to win.

And that is true of the general election. But the Republican primary might be a different story. A Morning Consult poll conducted this weekend — partially after Trump’s claim that his arrest is imminent — found 54% of GOP primary voters support the former president in 2024. DeSantis, meanwhile, had slipped to 26%, tied for his lowest standing yet.  


President Biden will host a Women’s History Month reception. Vice President Harris, First Lady Biden, and Second Gentleman Emhoff will also attend.

Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell will hold a press conference to announce the Fed’s latest move on interest rates. Powell is facing pressure to ease his interest rate hikes amid the post-SVB banking panic. (Watch at 2:30 p.m. ET)

The Senate will hold a vote to confirm Gordon Gallagher as a U.S. District Judge for the District of Colorado.

The House will vote on four bills:

  • H.R. 1093, which would direct the Secretary of State to report to Congress on the implementation of the “AUKUS” partnership with Australia and the UK.
  • H.R. 1159, which would direct the State Department to conduct period reviews of its guidelines for U.S. engagement with Taiwan.
  • H.R. 406, which would give the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) the same diplomatic privileges and immunities as other recognized international organizations like the African Union, the World Bank, and the UN.
  • H. Con. Res. 25, which would authorize space in the Capitol to be used for a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony next month.

Hearings to watch: Norfolk Southern’s CEO will testify before a Senate panel on the East Palestine derailment (Watch at 10 a.m. ET)... Moderna’s CEO will testify before a Senate panel on the company’s plans to increase its Covid vaccine price (Watch at 10 a.m. ET)

The Supreme Court will hold oral arguments in Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc. v. VIP Products LLC, in which the whiskey company Jack Daniel’s is suing toy company VIP Products for creating a plastic dog toy that resembles their bottle design. (Listen at 10 a.m.)

  • You be the judge: VIP Products says their toy constitutes First Amendment-protected parody. Jack Daniel’s says it’s trademark infringement. Here the two designs are side-by-side:
(Taft Law)

Before I go...

Here’s something fun: The 11th annual World Happiness Report was released this week by the UN.

One big takeaway: Covid made us nicer to each other, and the effects appear to have continued. “There was a globe-spanning surge of benevolence” — people doing kind things for other people — “in 2020 and especially in 2021,” the report says. “Data for 2022 show that [benevolent acts] remain about one-quarter more common than before the pandemic.”

Where are people the happiest? Here are this year’s top five happiest countries, according to the report:

  1. Finland (taking the top spot for the sixth year in a row)
  2. Denmark
  3. Iceland
  4. Israel
  5. The Netherlands

The U.S. came in at #15. The least happy country was Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Thanks for reading.

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Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe