By Karen Tumulty and Paul Kane The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — 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 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 Barack Obama proposed after the Newtown, Conn. 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 – Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida 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 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.
Other Republicans are gearing up for several weeks of debate and dozens of likely amendments, including many that would advance gun rights. GOP leaders have backed away from the position of its most junior senators, who have pushed to filibuster even the consideration of any gun legislation.
“There’s going to be a fulsome debate. We welcome, notwithstanding some of the signals from some corners, we welcome a fulsome debate on this,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., the No. 2 GOP leader, told reporters. “People are eager to have votes on amendments.”
That is built on the recognition that Democrats have plenty of conservative-state senators in their caucus who have long been allies of the National Rifle Association and who are likely to be punished politically if they waver from that support.
As recently as 2009 – when Democrats held 59 Senate seats – Republicans advanced gun-rights measures that allowed firearms in national parks and on Amtrak trains. They passed overwhelmingly as half the Democratic caucus joined the Republicans in support of the looser restrictions.
If the gun measure passes the Senate, its future in the House remains uncertain.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a moderate, has suggested that he would offer the same legislation in that chamber, but the House has much stricter rules, and such a debate would need to have leadership support.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, politically weakened for repeatedly allowing legislation to pass with a majority of Republicans opposed, shows no eagerness for such a divisive debate.
Immigration overhaul would appear to be on surer political footing, even though it is not as far along as gun legislation.
Unlike his work opposing the gun measure, Graham is leading the effort to defend the tentative agreement that the eight senators have crafted and is under final review.
“We’ll try to beat back amendments that are designed to kill the bill, except good ideas that make it better, and fight for the bill. That’s all you can do,” Graham said.
The plan is to unveil the immigration measure by early next week and hold a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee shortly thereafter.
After that, the panel is expected to consider many amendments — all of which will give an early indication of how likely it is that the new coalition will hold together. The last effort at a comprehensive immigration package, in June 2007, fell apart amid a flurry of amendments from the liberal and conservative wings of each party.
“That will be the great crucible,” Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the lead Democratic negotiator, said of the legislation’s test before the Judiciary Committee.
What has happened in the interim is the 2012 election.
Many Republicans believe that their stance against a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants became so politically toxic that it alienated Latino voters, who constitute a rapidly growing segment of the electorate.
“This time around, there’s been a sea change on the Republican side,” Graham said.
Despite that, some senior Republicans still worry that the legislation will crumble under its own weight by trying to fit in so many pieces of the issue.
“The difficulty is trying to pass a comprehensive bill. Because the more things you put together, the more opponents you develop,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said.