Hopeful for a Spring thaw in Washington

The political pundits on cable TV haven’t seemed to notice, but cracks are beginning to appear in the gridlock ice that has long blocked meaningful legislation in Congress. For the first time in years, Republican and Democratic members are working together to get something done.

Even more promising, some of the bipartisanship is being seen in the highly ideological budget area.

I wrote recently that since the first of the year we had made it over the “fiscal cliff,” survived sequestration, and then passed a short-term extension of the debt limit without the histrionics that accompanied that event last year. Now, wonder of wonders, the Continuing Resolution that supplies funds to the government passed last month with large majorities in both houses.

Remember that the CR was at the heart of the standoffs between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich that shut the government down not once but twice, in 1995 and 1996. This year it passed without much fanfare on March 21, 10 days before the deadline. Given the gridlock we have gotten used to in the past four years, the votes in both houses were eye opening. There were 73 aye votes in the Senate and 326 in the House. Of the 27 nay votes in the Senate, 26 were Republicans. But in the House, 82 of the 109 nay votes were Democrats. The last time we saw votes like that might go back as far as Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.

The President took the unusual step of waiting until after both houses had presented their budgets to unveil his own detailed budget proposal. It is generally acknowledged to be by far his most serious effort to find some medium ground. His reward, of course, has been howls of disapproval from both the left and the right.

Nevertheless, just about everyone who has seriously studied the policies that created the budget surpluses of the late 1990s has called for putting everything on the table the way the first President Bush and President Clinton did – cuts in expenditures as well as enhanced revenue. President Obama had put entitlement reform on the table several times in the past in behind the scene negotiations with House Speaker Boehner. This budget proposal, however, is the first time the President has publicly advocated changing the Cost of Living formula for Social Security.

If you listen to the noise coming from Washington, it is hard to believe that any grand bargain on the budget will happen this year. Stop listening and instead watch what is actually happening in other areas. When was the last time United States senators from different parties stood together agreeing on major joint proposals? That has happened in the last few days on three of our most contentious domestic issues – guns, immigration and Wall Street reform.

Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) co-sponsored a bill to provide a national expanded background check system for gun buyers. By a vote of 68 (including 16 Republicans) to 31, the full Senate supported moving forward to a debate on their proposal. Even though the bill didn’t get the 60 votes it needed to pass on Wednesday, the overwhelming support of the majority of Americans for background checks might force another vote on the issue, and whatever passes will have bipartisan support.

Last Sunday, Sen. Mark Rubio (R-Fla.) did “the full Ginsberg,” appearing on seven Sunday morning TV talk shows promoting the “gang of eight” (four Democrats, four Republicans) agreement on immigration reform. Just five months ago, the Republican candidate for President ran on a platform of “self-deportation.” That a possible Republican nominee for President in 2016 has so radically moved beyond that approach makes an immigration bill a real possibility in this Congress.

Finally, in the next few weeks we can expect a Wall Street reform bill co-sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). While the bill won’t explicitly break up too-big-to-fail banks, something I have long advocated, it is a major step in the right direction. Requiring banks to maintain a ratio of 10 percent of equity capital to total assets would make them less likely to need a government bailout in the next financial crisis. Because the bill would also impose additional capital requirements of up to 15 percent on banks with assets of more than $400 billion, it is likely its passage would encourage the largest banks to restructure.

Will the cracks in the gridlock ice become larger, and produce the kind of bipartisan compromise legislation so many of us have hoped for? It’s spring. I’m an optimist. Let’s be thankful for the thaw and hope we move on from there.

Originally published 20 Apr 2013 on delawareonline.com