Column: Washington bitten by the bipartisan bug

Farm Forum

After several bitterly partisan battles on fiscal issues, bipartisanship seems to be breaking out on Capitol Hill in two other controversial areas: immigration reform and gun control.

While it’s too early to know if it will produce significant legislation, there are positive portents in how all sides — including the White House — are proceeding.

On immigration, eight senators — four from each party including two top Democrats and key Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain — have agreed on principles designed to lead to a broad bill providing both strengthened border control and a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

The White House called it “very consistent” with President Barack Obama’s views, which he laid out more completely Tuesday in Las Vegas. But potential for conflict remains in Obama’s advocacy of an easier path to citizenship not tied to the success of the expanded border controls.

It was no coincidence the eight senators came forward before the White House. Their hope: to reduce the GOP criticism that greets almost anything Obama says and establish the bipartisan tone that will be needed to pass the complex legislation.

Similarly, on gun control, a prominent Republican conservative senator, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, has been working quietly with a moderate Republican and two key Democrats to develop a plan to strengthen background checks, the most likely area for congressional agreement.

The legislative process is just starting on both issues. But the inclusion of key legislators bodes well for action in the Senate, where partisan divisions have often prevented it.

Even in the House, where most Republicans oppose both immigration and gun control measures, a group of Republicans and Democrats has been working quietly on immigration, and Speaker John Boehner said several days ago, “they basically have an agreement.” Boehner has called a comprehensive approach to immigration “long overdue.”

A key question in the House may be whether GOP leaders allow a coalition of most Democrats and a small number of Republicans to bring to the floor a compromise bill that most Republicans oppose. But they did so to prevent the so-called “fiscal cliff,” and Boehner’s attitude suggests they would do it again.

It’s clear why immigration is the issue most conducive to the kind of bipartisan effort needed to surmount potential procedural roadblocks.

As Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., explained Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”: “First of all, Americans support it in poll after poll. Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it.”

That’s because the GOP suffered significant erosion in its Hispanic support, winning just 27 percent in 2012, compared with 40 percent eight years earlier.

“We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we’ve got to understand that,” McCain, R-Ariz., added.

Menendez and McCain are among the eight senators working on immigration, along with the Senate’s No. 2 and 3 Democrats, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York; Sens. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rubio, R-Fla..

On gun control, Coburn is working with Schumer, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., on legislation mandating background checks for all gun buyers, with some limited exceptions.

“If you transfer your car, you have to have a license to transfer, it has to go through that,” Coburn told KRMG-TV in Tulsa on Friday. “I have no problems with us making sure that we don’t allow guns to get in the hands of either felons, or people who are a danger to themselves or other people.”

Legislation extending background checks is seen as more likely to pass the Senate than measures banning semi-automatic rifles and high capacity magazines.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has introduced a far broader bill, including reviving the ban on semi-automatic weapons that was passed in 1994 but expired 10 years later.

Still, the road for any gun-related legislation remains far more difficult in the House than in the Senate, unless bipartisanism breaks out there, too.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: