There's a new speaker in the House and fewer influential centrists. Washington's bipartisan fever hasn't broken yet, though.
The centrist group No Labels convened a bicameral policy conference in Florida over the weekend to discuss how the ideological center can break through in a divided Washington. Republicans run the House while Democrats control the Senate and White House, a divided government lineup not seen since 2013 and 2014 - not exactly years remembered for their bipartisan bonhomie.
Yet, two of the ringleaders of the past 30 months of bipartisan dealmaking say they won't be dissuaded by the tougher dynamics that Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his reed-thin majority present, alongside Democrats' bare Senate majority and the looming presidential race.
"The center is still going to be where people are going to have to gather around in order to get anything done," Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Sunday. If Senate Democrats "can't find basically nine centrist moderate, reasonable Republicans who want to accomplish something in the next Congress here … then it will be just basically a stalemate," he added.
In interviews on Sunday during the No Labels confab, Manchin and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said their work would not halt just because it may be tougher to convince McCarthy's majority to take up legislation. They did admit that their work might look a bit different this Congress.
That's primarily thanks to tricky leadership politics: McCarthy barely won the speakership after a brutal intraparty battle and could easily find his job on the line if he compromises with Democrats, particularly on immigration. Manchin has already met with McCarthy and Collins plans to seek a meeting soon. Both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell facilitated the dealmaking aspirations of centrists like Collins and Manchin last Congress, cutting against the grain of their partisan reputations.
But the set of challenges facing lawmakers this year doesn't help either. Now the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, Collins described the No Labels-aligned centrists' tasks as more urgent than simply seeking consensus on issues that have long bedeviled Congress, like the border.
She said that her allies must also be prepared to keep the government funded and raise the debt ceiling if McCarthy and President Joe Biden can't come to an agreement.
"We're more focused on issues. Now, in focusing on issues, we obviously discuss the possibility of political agreements and negotiations," Collins said in an interview. "In some ways, No Labels is designed for dealing with divided government."
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) were scheduled to attend the Florida meeting, as were Texas Reps. Henry Cuellar (D), Tony Gonzales (R) and Vicente Gonzalez (D), with immigration a big focus among the House members and Sinema. Collins attended via Zoom.
Manchin said he's also closely consulting with the leaders of the Problem Solvers Caucus, led by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.).
It's a continuation of a surprising reemergence of the political center in Washington, albeit one with uncertain prospects. The centrist group's first breakthrough came in the waning days of the Trump administration, when senators cut a deal on $900 billion in Covid aid. After stops and starts once Biden became president, a rotating cast of bipartisan senators helped write new laws on infrastructure, gun safety, microchips, Electoral Count Act reform and same-sex marriage protection.
Today, Collins' job involves reforming appropriations so that some spending bills come to the floor far in advance in the Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government, a difficult tightrope to walk but a popular demand in both chambers. Without more floor action on spending bills, the prospects of a stopgap spending bill - or worse, a shutdown - increase.
"I have yet to talk to a Democrat or a Republican in either body who thinks the current system of an end-of-the-year, gigantic belated spending bill serves either Congress or the country well," Collins said.
She's discussed the matter with Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.), House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger (R-Texas) and that panel's ranking member, Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
Manchin specifically mentioned energy permitting reform as an area McCarthy is open to pursuing; last year's party-line tax, climate and health care bill that he shaped included a side deal on permitting that many Republicans and some Democrats opposed, leaving the matter in limbo. Manchin said McCarthy's view is that "permitting is something we all know has to be done" in order to speed up project construction.
In his capacity as the Senate's Energy Committee chair, Manchin has spoken with House Natural Resources Committee Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and plans to speak soon with Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.).
The West Virginian also still believes the 2013 Gang of Eight bill should form the basis of any immigration reform plan, emphasizing that bill's border security component. Sinema and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) are already trying to forge a deal in that space.
Spokesperson Hannah Hurley said Sinema is committed to working with lawmakers "on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress and delivering measurable and meaningful progress on bipartisan solutions to the crisis at our border."
And Manchin is open to a piecemeal immigration reform effort preferred by Republicans if that's what it takes: "I'll take anything I can get that's going to be productive and promising."
Hanging over it all is whether Manchin or Sinema will run for reelection or follow the path of their friend Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican senator who retired last Congress. Manchin said he hopes the point is moot given the stakes and the players.
"'We can't have a bipartisan conversation because then you might take credit for it. It might help you get reelected.' That's crazy stuff. Crazy, crazy mentality," Manchin said of some colleagues' reluctance to work across the aisle. "You're elected in the Senate for a six-year term. You better work all six years on doing the right thing, rather than just four years."
In addition to current elected officials, No Labels also invited a contingent of former officials to Florida, many of whom have been involved in the group for years. Among them were: Former Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.); former Govs. Larry Hogan (R-Md.), Bill Haslam (R-Tenn.), Pat McCrory (R-N.C.), Deval Patrick (D-Mass.) and Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.); and former Reps. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), Max Rose (D-N.Y.) and Hawaii's Tulsi Gabbard, who recently left the Democratic Party.