For the first time in a while, members of the two parties — at least some of them — appear to be talking about getting things done, even without the deadline of a manufactured crisis looming.
With Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) reaching a deal to expand background checks on firearms purchases, the way appears to have been cleared for the Senate to start debate on gun-control legislation. Although their provision is not as far-reaching as what President Obama proposed after the Newtown massacre in December, he praised it as “common sense.”
Another bipartisan deal also is in the offing, as a group of eight senators nears final agreement on a plan that would give illegal immigrants a path to legal status and, potentially, citizenship.
And Wednesday night, Obama continued his outreach to Senate Republicans, dining with a dozen of them to discuss the nation’s fiscal future and the budget he put forward earlier in the day. It was the second such dinner in a matter of weeks.
“What we did, we did right,” said Manchin in an interview Wednesday, referring to his background-check deal. “And you have to look at that in the toxic atmosphere that we’re in, that I’ve experienced for 2 1/2 years. Oh Lordy, if we’re able to get this, I think, good piece of legislation through, it’ll be a major accomplishment.”
This moment may mark the beginning of a real thaw. Or it may just be a false spring.
Either way, it was a sign of how low expectations have sunk in Washington that any of these developments could be heralded as a breakthrough.
After all, the Senate will now debate a measure that nine out of 10 Americans say they want.
Bending on immigration is a matter of survival for Republicans, who know their hard-line stance has put them at odds with an increasingly diverse country.
And dinners such as the one at the White House on Wednesday used to be commonplace back when it was expected that the two parties could engage civilly and respectfully, no matter their differences on the issues.
“We are making progress,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), hours before she attended the dinner. “These are really substantive discussions on issues of the day, and we haven’t had that in a long time.”
Moving forward over the next few weeks on gun control and immigration overhaul does not necessarily establish a new political dynamic in which Obama and the Republicans in Congress can later tackle the bigger challenges of tax and entitlement reform — a “grand bargain” that both sides say is crucial to the country’s economic future.
But the flip side does hold true: If they cannot come together on these narrower issues, it is difficult to see how they would trust each other enough to go for broader compromises. That lack of faith is the reason that Washington decision making in recent years has happened only when catastrophe is looming — government shutdowns, the debt-ceiling and a “fiscal cliff,” all crises of Washington’s own making.
One of the things that appears to be happening is a return to the way that Congress normally used to work, with a broader cross section of its members getting involved in shaping deals — and, therefore, becoming invested in making them work.
Of late, issues do not get hashed out in a conference room in the House speaker’s office or at the Senate majority leader’s desk. Committee chairmen and rank-and-file senators are in the mix, cutting deals among themselves and outside interest groups, pledging to fight for them throughout the process.
The key Republicans on immigration and gun violence — Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Toomey, respectively — have been in the chamber barely two years, and both hail from tea party roots, having won their party nominations by ousting establishment favorites.
“The more broad-based, the better,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a 34-year veteran of the chamber and chairman of the Finance Committee.
But even though it appears beneficial to have more co-pilots involved in the takeoff, it remains to be seen whether that will complicate the landing for some of these measures.
Especially unpredictable, all sides agree, is the way ahead for the gun violence measures, because there are deep divides in both parties about how far to push in reining in gun rights.
Senate Republicans held a lunch that was intended to address both guns and immigration, including a highly anticipated briefing by Rubio, but senators said afterward that their gun debate took up so much time that they left the immigration discussion for another day.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — who seems to be in the middle of just about everything lately — told reporters that he is working on crafting a Republican alternative that would include different provisions for gun trafficking, no expansion of background checks and other measures that gun-control advocates say would weaken the bill to a point where it would not be worthy of passage.