In the past few weeks, Congress has been doing something that feels surprising: weighing a number of bipartisan bills on issues including sexual harassment and stock trading. Given Republicans’ willingness to block many of Democrats’ biggest priorities, this sudden influx of bipartisan activity seems unexpected. In reality, it follows longstanding historical patterns. One of the reasons lawmakers have turned to bipartisan bills is that more partisan measures have been unable to pass in recent months. Previously, the Freedom to Vote Act, legislation focused on voting rights protections, failed on the floor because it was blocked by Senate Republicans. The Build Back Better Act, Democrats’ sweeping social spending and climate measure, is also currently on pause as lawmakers scramble to figure out what Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) will accept. In the interim, lawmakers have focused their attention on legislation that could potentially get 60 votes in the Senate. (Since there are 50 Democrats in the Senate, they need at least 10 Republicans to vote with them to overcome a filibuster on most bills in the upper chamber.) “People realize we’re not going to get rid of the filibuster. If you want to get something done, you’ve got to work together,” Manchin told NBC News about the spike in bipartisan legislation.
This trend is in line with past instances of unified government, says University of Utah political science professor James Curry, the co-author of a book on the subject called The Limits of Party. The party in power “tends to spend a lot of time passing things that are ambitious and trying to figure out how to do things on a single-party basis, until they meet reality,” says Curry. As a result, bipartisanship winds up being more common than people think it is — even when one party holds full control of Congress.