DC’s Spirit of Bipartisanship Proved Short Lived
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DC’s Spirit of Bipartisanship Proved Short Lived

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

So all that newfound spirit of bipartisanship in Washington was remarkably short-lived.

Warm feelings between Senate Democrats and Republicans on immigration, gun control, and even the budget began to surface this month. But on Wednesday, it looked like Capitol Hill was snapping back to its cold spell.

A much heralded bipartisan bill drafted by Democratic Sen. Joseph Manchin III of West Virginia and Republican Sen.  Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to expand background checks on would-be gun buyers went down to defeat by six votes. A week ago, 16 Republicans voted with the Democrats to overcome a threatened filibuster of the measure, but only four Republicans voted for the Manchin-Toomey bill on Wednesday.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats squabbled over whether they should meet in a conference to try to work out the many differences between their two budgets for the coming fiscal year after the two sides appeared to have called an armistice in their long-standing feuding. The Senate “Gang of Eight’s” newly unveiled bipartisan immigration reform proposals appeared to be hitting a snag.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a renowned deal maker, captured the partisan chill in a speech to bankers. McConnell announced he has no intention of abandoning the $85 billion of across the board sequester cuts that took effect March 1, despite President Obama’s call to do so in his fiscal 2014 budget blue print. “To make that law mean something, you can’t walk away from it,” McConnell said in address to an American Bankers Association conference in Washington.

The GOP’s legislative gatekeeper added that any measure to increase the government’s borrowing authority—which will be maxed out in May—must be attached to a bigger budget deal. McConnell stressed that the deficit must take precedent over Obama’s own agenda of early childhood education and infrastructure, and that the age to qualify for Social Security and Medicare should be raised to lower government costs.

“The single biggest threat to our future—as we all know—is our deficit and our debt,” McConnell said.

These are the sentiments of the lawmaker who not all that long ago had been the peacemaker with the White House. All three of the major GOP compromises with Obama in recent years were routed through the wily Kentucky Republican—including the 2010 extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, the 2011 debt ceiling agreement, and last January’s fiscal cliff deal. But McConnell reportedly has strained relations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Obama, and is now more concerned about positioning himself for his reelection campaign next year than serving again as a deal maker.

“Boy, that didn’t last very long,” Jim Manley, a Washington media consultant and former chief spokesman for Reid, said yesterday of the fleeting nature of bipartisanship in Washington. “While I do think for a variety of reasons there’s a decent chance of getting immigration done, any idea that this little thaw we had [in partisan gridlock] is going to lead to bigger and better things is sorely mistaken.”

A handful of recent developments, including President Obama’s charm offensive on Capitol Hill, the forging of an unlikely coalition on immigration reform, and the preliminary vote last week on gun control fueled speculation that Capitol Hill has finally turned a corner on gridlock. But previous so-called breakthroughs proved to be a disappointing bust, and this time seems no different.

In the face of unyielding opposition from the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups, there was never a realistic chance that Congress would approve tough gun control measures – such as a renewal of the ban on military style, semi-automatic rifles or a ban on large clips of bullets  – in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., last December.

But after 68 senators were moved last week by the pleas of the families of some of the 26 victims, extending criminal background checks for firearm sales to gun shows and on the Internet looked like the last best hope for a bipartisan breakthrough.

After two days of scrambling to try to assemble the 60-vote super majority needed to push the measure through, Manchin openly admitted in an appearance on NBC News early yesterday that his background check amendment lacked the necessary votes. 

“If you want to remember those 20 babies – beautiful children—and the six brave teachers [at Sandy Hook], and you want to honor the most courageous family members I have ever met in my life, please consider you should vote for this bill,” Manchin said on the Senate floor just before the vote on his measure. With Vice President Joe Biden presiding over the chamber, the Senate voted 54 to 46 in favor of the measure, but that was well short of the super majority. Only four Republicans voted for it:  Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, John McCain of Arizona and Toomey.

A controversial Democratic plan promoted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California to ban dozens of military-style assault weapons was also defeated by a vote of 40 to 60. The votes were a setback for President Obama, who angrily blasted Republicans for defeating the background check compromise, saying, “The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill.”

The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators finally unveiled their far-reaching immigration reform proposals this week that would offer what they describe as a “hard but fair” path to green cards and full citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. With freshman Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Democratic Sen. Chuck  Schumer of New York and President Obama behind it,  the proposals for tightening security at the border while gradually moving many illegal immigrants out of the shadow and into the mainstream of the U.S. economy and legal system appears to have a good chance of passage.

Republican political strategists view immigration reform as an important plank of their new agenda as they try to woo politically potent Hispanic voters into their fold. And Rubio, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and the six other Democratic and Republican members of the gang, believe they have come up with the proper mix of incentives and safeguards in overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.  A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 63 percent of Americans support giving undocumented immigrants the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.

But opponents who argue that the reforms would be too costly to the government, don’t do enough to tighten security at the border and are tantamount to granting amnesty to scofflaws and criminals are mounting an effective assault, with an eye to  slowing deliberations while promoting  a series of “poison pill” amendments that would assure the legislation’s defeat on final passage.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., has protested efforts to push the reform legislation through two Judiciary Committee hearings on Friday and next Monday, saying the Senate needs far more time to review the plan. And Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a prominent House conservative, told the National Review that Congress should be cautious about rushing immigration reform, especially after Monday’s bombing in Boston, where three people were killed.

King in effect seized on what proved to be early inaccurate reports on suspects in the bombing to argue for caution in easing legal restrictions on foreign nationals. “Some of the speculation that has come out is that yes, it was a foreign national and, speculating here, that it was potentially a person on a student visa,” King says. “If that’s the case, then we need to take a look at the big picture.”

Republicans frequently complained that Senate Democrats hadn’t passed a budget for nearly four years, and called for a return to “regular order” in which the two chambers of Congress adopted their respective budgets and then negotiated a compromise budget resolution to guide spending and tax policy for the coming year.

The Democratic-controlled Senate finally granted Republicans their wish by passing a budget in March – a blue print vastly different from the House-passed budget.  Since then, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., has gamely pressed the House Republican majority to schedule negotiating sessions to at least try to find some middle ground on their rival budget policies.

The Republicans adopted a budget that would wipe out the deficit within ten years, in part by eliminating Obama’s signature health care reform law, while the Senate-passed plan makes no effort to balance the budget and calls for substantial increases in taxes along with spending cuts.
But House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., disclosed on Tuesday that Republicans have no plans to appoint conferees to meet with Senate Democrats – at least not any time soon. “What we want to do is have constructive dialogues to find out where the common ground is and then go to conference when we have a realistic chance of actually coming out with an agreement,” Ryan said, according to the Washington Post.

Murray and Reid, the Senate majority leader, were clearly miffed. “We have had the Republicans yelling, screaming, sometimes violently, to have regular order,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters at the Capitol. “Does [Ryan] want regular order? Obviously not.”

House Budget Committee Democrats yesterday sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio urging Republican leaders to immediately appoint conferees. “There are significant differences in opinion on how to best set the budget on a sustainable path, strengthen the economy and create well-paying jobs, and strengthen the programs providing the modest benefits that allow our seniors to live with dignity,” the letter stated. “Yet, despite those disparate views, there is no excuse for dysfunction in Congress, and there can be no justification for the failure to engage in a meaningful attempt to find common ground.”