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These four reasons explain why bipartisanship is breaking out all over. Will it last?

- December 17, 2015

Congress will close out 2015 with a raft of bipartisan accomplishments. Hill watchers expect mammoth spending and tax deals to be cleared this week and signed into law soon (albeit with a little partisan drama possible along the way). These major agreements come on top of other big deals this year, including transportation, education, veterans’ health, and surveillance reforms.

Why so much bipartisanship, and will it last? Republican leaders claim that Republicans and Democrats alike were pining to get Congress working again. They suggest that new leaders in both chambers were committed to “regular order,” making possible bipartisan deals. Empower the rank and file, they argued, and bipartisanship will result.

I’m skeptical that leaders’ commitment to new procedural arrangements accounts for such a sea change in Congress’s legislative performance. Instead, a shift in GOP electoral incentives, a cooperative Senate minority, and past rounds of kick-the-can have arguably delivered a perfect storm for getting things done in 2015. Next year when lawmakers refocus on issues that divide parties – Obamacare, immigration and guns – the campaign for the White House and Congress will likely eclipse most incentives to get back to the bargaining table for more bipartisan deals.

Here are four reasons why Congress looks so productive of late, but why it’s not likely to last.

1. Senate Republicans want voters to trust them with power

Senate GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) argues that Democrats have been eager to legislate, claiming that Democratic leader Harry Reid (Nev.) tied the Senate in knots when Democrats controlled the chamber.

With Republicans at the helm, McConnell argues that he opened the flood gates and let the Senate work. I doubt it. Instead, Republicans’ electoral incentives have changed, with McConnell encouraging GOP colleagues back to the negotiating table while eventually giving up his own highly partisan quest for red-meat riders to the spending bill on energy, land, environment and other flash point issues.

With Republicans contesting 24 GOP-held or open seats in 2016, McConnell remains focused on toss-up races where his Republican incumbents must run in purple states: for starters, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire. Giving his colleagues a bipartisan record to run on in 2016 surely shaped McConnell’s willingness to commit floor time to these issues. What better way to convince purple state voters to trust Republicans with power than to put some moderate policy gains on display while blaming Democrats for previous inaction.

2. Senate Democrats have cooperated

In the absence of a filibuster-proof majority, “getting things done” in the Senate requires the cooperation of the minority party. Without minority party votes, the majority is powerless to set the agenda or bring measures to a vote. (In fact, in the one area in which a cohesive majority no longer needs minority support – confirming presidential nominations – we’ve seen the GOP’s partisan incentives grind advice and consent all but to a halt.)

We see a hint of rising Democratic cooperation in the figure below, which tracks partisan differences on cloture votes through the end of September 2015.

Graph: Sarah Binder/Monkey Cage

Granted, partisanship on the gatekeeping votes to allow measures to come to a vote remains very high –not surprising given the GOP’s repeated push for measures to defund Planned Parenthood, block homeland security funding and other partisan-charged measures this year. But the figure shows a slight leveling off in the steady increase in the partisanship on cloture votes over the past several decades.

Boring into the data, in 2014 the average difference in majority and minority party senators supporting cloture was 77 percent; in 2015 through the end of September, mean difference in support dropped sharply to just over 50 percent. In 2014, on average just 18 percent of minority party Republicans voted for cloture; in 2015, on average over 30 percent of Democrats have supported cloture. Democrats’ cooperation has surely unpinned the Senate’s bipartisan drive.

3.  It’s the Democrats’ agenda

With Republicans periodically eager to legislate, it was hardly a tough sell to convince Democrats to meet the GOP at the table to negotiate deals on Democratic priorities. Keep in mind that innumerable rounds of kick-the-can brought many of these issues to the Senate agenda this year, including 35 punts of the highway bill since 2010 and a seven-year kick of the expired No Child Left Behind law. There was ample hanging, over-ripened fruit – arguably in large part due to GOP foot-dragging in the past – waiting for the parties to come back to pick.

Each time at the bargaining table, with the leverage that comes from holding the White House, Democrats secured policy gains that made up for concessions they offered to Republicans. Democrats’ priorities (renewable energy tax breaks) were coupled with Republican favorites (repeal crude oil export ban). Tax breaks for business were matched with permanent child care and low-wage worker tax credits. No surprise that when Republicans have an incentive to negotiate, Democrats will play ball to advance Democratic priorities.

4.  Timing is everything

Some fortuitous timing – maybe plain old good luck – is also facilitating this week’s anticipated bipartisanship. Negotiating taxes and spending jointly was either a smart move or lucky break for House Republicans. Democrats are more likely to support the spending bill than the tax breaks, and vice versa for House GOP. Moreover, with two legislative vehicles to assemble, GOP leaders could strategically place GOP-favored provisions in the omnibus (such as the oil export ban) to try to build GOP support for a spending bill many of them abhor. Democratic leaders’ criticism of the export ban might even attract more GOP votes for the spending bill.

That of course is ultimately Speaker Paul Ryan’s political imperative: finish cleaning out the barn, while seeking Republican majorities for both measures. You can already hear Ryan blame the process (“This is not how appropriations should work”), distancing himself from the mess he inherited this fall. Securing majority support within the GOP conference would help to limit the speaker’s reliance on Freedom Caucus votes – allowing him to give them a seat at the table and still look ahead to party campaigns in 2016.

Even with the flood of bipartisan agreements, concerns about partisan advantage are alive and well on the Hill. Luckily for voters, one party’s advantage appears to require actually legislating and thus cutting the minority party into deals. So long as GOP electoral motives and Democrats’ political interests are yoked, bipartisanship is tenuous, but possible. Sever the connection and the Congress could look broken again.