A new bipartisan group of 20 senators convened behind closed doors in Washington on March 17 to discuss a range of issues, including infrastructure, in a bid to avoid the partisan rancor that has bedeviled Congress since President Joe Biden took office.
“I think it was very valuable for us to get together, and everyone is so very committed to working together on a host of issues,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters after the meeting.
“I could tell you that we solved all the world’s problems and that we straightened out Congress. But that would be an overstatement.”
The group is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. While Democrats hold the tie-breaking vote in the 50–50 Senate, gridlock is all but guaranteed without agreement from both sides of the aisle to reach the 60-vote threshold to end a filibuster and bring a bill to the floor for a vote.
The bloc started late last year when many of the members got together to influence COVID-19 relief negotiations. They succeeded in punching through partisan gridlock; their framework was adopted by Democratic leaders, and stayed mostly intact in the final version of last year’s $900 billion legislation.
“We came together because we saw that there was a void, we thought the public was asking for additional COVID relief, and leadership on both sides determined that it wasn’t going to happen for different political reasons. And we thought that needed a response,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters on March 17. “We’re here to be problem-solvers. I see this group as having a role potentially in everything that is coming before the Senate.”
While those in the group largely declined to outline what was discussed specifically during the meeting, they indicated that the conversations will help as the upper chamber tries to hammer out agreements on a new infrastructure bill, whether to alter filibuster rules, and possibly to craft further pandemic relief.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said the group discussed the divisions that have split the Senate, even as the country faces “international challenges” and “climate change.”
“We need to find ways to get to unity,” he told reporters.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key moderate, said earlier this week that the meeting was about relationship building and maintenance.
“It’s not just one and done or it’ll fall apart,” he said, adding that keeping relationships “makes it easier to talk about everything.”
Part of the agenda was to see “whether there’s a willingness to forge bipartisan compromises or whether the Democratic members feel they have to endorse whatever the White House would say,” Collins said before the group met.
Biden and the White House have claimed to be open to negotiating with Republicans on key issues but backed the partisan passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. Before the passage, he met with some Republican lawmakers, but they described their ideas as being shot down by his chief of staff, Ron Klain.
Besides infrastructure and the filibuster, the Senate is weighing proposals on immigration and election reform.