Can the two parties disagree without being disagreeable?

Mitch McConnell's debut as the new Senate majority leader served at least one worthy Republican cause. It made Speaker of the House John Boehner, who easily turned back an intraparty challenge on the other side of the Capitol, seem the soul of sweet reasonableness by contrast.

On opening day of the new session in the House, Mr. Boehner offered an olive branch to the mini-revolt against his re-election as speaker and to House Democrats, saying, "All I ask and, frankly, expect, is that we disagree without being disagreeable." Only 25 GOP votes were denied him, split among a few challengers.


In the Senate, Mr. McConnell's opening remarks revealed the same old sour grouch, contemptuous of the Democratic opposition. Repeating his customary complaints about a failed Obama administration and lamenting that "anxiety about the type of country we leave to the next generation is widespread," he said the new Congress should "look for areas of agreement when we can," but offered little enthusiasm at the prospect.

Mr. Boehner, however, did not entirely ignore the hopeless endeavor of his most conservative House colleagues to deny him re-election as speaker. After the 25 voted against him, the most to do so in decades, he removed two of them — Reps. Daniel Webster and Richard Nugent of Florida — from membership on the House Rules Committee, the traffic cop governing the flow of legislation to the House floor.

But Mr. Boehner has long demonstrated a talent for herding reluctant or troublesome sheep of his flock with a generally conciliatory style. Mr. McConnell not only must emulate that in the Senate, but even with 54 Republicans in his party he will need to corral six or more Democratic or independent votes to break a filibuster or pass legislation.

In any event, the new dynamic on Capitol Hill of Republican control of both houses bodes an even tougher slog for President Barack Obama over his final two years in office. Despite unconvincing promises from leaders of both parties that they will try to find some common ground on certain issues, few expect that the mutual hostility built up on both sides to melt away. Still, Mr. Boehner has called on fellow Republicans to defy that notion. After his re-election, he urged them to "stand tall and prove the skeptics wrong."

As for President Obama, for all his own expressed willingness to find compromise on contentious issues, talk of an early Republican effort to pass the proposed construction of the Keystone pipeline from Canada to oil refineries on the American Gulf Coast has already brought a swift White House response.

Even before the elections of Messrs. McConnell and Boehner, presidential press secretary Josh Earnest declared that "if this bill passes the Congress, the president wouldn't sign it." Mr. McConnell quickly replied: "The president threatening to veto the first bipartisan infrastructure bill of the new Congress must come as a shock to the American people, who spoke loudly in November in favor of bipartisan accomplishments." And Mr. Boehner observed: "This is simply another sign that President Obama is hopelessly out of touch."

Mr. Earnest shot back, saying of Mr. McConnell's remarks: "Maybe it raises questions about the willingness of the Republicans to actually cooperate with this administration, when you consider that the very first bill that's introduced in the United States Senate is one that the Republicans know the president opposes."

And so it goes. But one area in which the Obama administration has long called for opposition party support has been repair and rehabilitation of the nation's crumbling infrastructure — roads, bridges and the like. As in the GOP pitch for the pipeline, all these could boost employment. Doesn't this fact offer a prospect for give-and-take by the two parties?

If the same stalemate and inaction born of partisan obstructionism of the last six years continues for the next two, Mr. Obama will not be the only loser. Public disillusionment with government will take another heavy hit, with both parties now bearing the burden.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is