Steven V. Roberts: The center out strategy

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 13, 2021

When the Senate passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with 19 Republican votes, Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who helped forge the compromise, proclaimed, “This process of starting from the center out has worked.”

Such deals and declarations were once a routine part of Senate life. Today they are rare, even revolutionary, and this measure earned the enmity of hardliners on both sides.

Donald Trump denounced Republicans who supported the bill as “weak, foolish and dumb” and threatened them with primary challenges. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez fulminated that the measure “utterly fails to meet the scale of the climate crisis” and threatened to oppose it in the House.

But in a closely divided Capitol that’s been choking for years on the toxic fumes of hyper-partisanship, working from “the center out” makes a lot of sense. For one brief moment, compromise has been restored to its rightful place in the political lexicon — as a description of a virtuous outcome, not a betrayal. As Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska put it, “It’s better to get some of what our constituents want rather than none of it.”

Of course, infrastructure generates far more bipartisan support than emotional flashpoints like, say, abortion or immigration. Republicans and Democrats alike drive over bad roads and want better broadband connections. And as Democratic whip Dick Durbin of Illinois put it, “You’re giving stuff away. … Members get to cut ribbons and wear hard hats. You know, it’s the easiest bill in the world, in that respect.”

Still, there’s a faint flickering hope that the infrastructure effort could serve as a template for future compromises. Relationships have developed. Trust has increased. Mutual respect, of all things, seems to be emerging.

Now robust partisanship is a positive dimension of American politics, and voters deserve a clear choice between the parties. But there was a time — not that long ago — when pragmatic legislators in both parties worked together on key legislation. I treasure a photo from 2001 where President Bush 43 was taking a victory lap after the passage of an educational reform measure. Sitting next to him was a beaming senator who had co-sponsored the bill: Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Republican Dick Lugar of Indiana and Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia cooperated on a critical bill in 1991 that reduced the threat of nuclear weapons abandoned by the former Soviet Union. The last immigration reform measure, signed by President Reagan in 1986, was co-sponsored by Republican Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Democrat Ron Mazzoli of Kentucky.

In those days, many legislators brought their families to Washington. They worshipped in the same churches, lived in the same neighborhoods, sent their kids to the same schools. Friendships nurtured at PTA meetings and soccer fields and piano recitals helped lubricate the legislative process.

My father-in-law, Hale Boggs, the House Democratic whip during the 1960s, formed a close relationship with Gerald Ford, then the Republican leader who later became president. Ford’s wife Betty asked my wife, Cokie, to deliver a eulogy at her funeral describing the friendships that existed across party lines — a gesture that seems completely impossible today.

Ellen McCarthy, the daughter of the late Sen. Gene McCarthy, a Minnesota Democrat, worked for years in Congress briefing new members. She always urged them to bring their families to the capital, but as time went by, fewer and fewer lawmakers listened to her advice, and as she told me, this trend does “terrible things in terms of the fabric of the Congress.”

Lawmakers, she said, “don’t spend any time with each other, they don’t get to know each other as people, and I think it’s a loss to the country.”

That’s true. As Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, told Time magazine, “Nobody knows anybody up here. It’s amazing. There just aren’t enough real relationships. … I know dysfunctional families that function better than the Senate does. It’s just crazy.”

Manchin has tried to bridge that divide by inviting lawmakers to social events on his houseboat, docked not far from the Capitol. “The core group that worked on this infrastructure bill has been socializing on the boat together for a long time,” Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told The Washington Post. “The bill probably would have fallen apart, after there were some strong crosscurrents, if not for the trust and relationships that were built, including during time on the boat.”

This time, Portman’s “from the center out” strategy worked. The Houseboat Compact prevailed. Can that deal be duplicated on other issues? Doubtful — but it’s very much worth trying.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at