April 12 (Bloomberg) — That sound you’re hearing may be the cracking of gridlock in Washington.
Bipartisan bills on three of the big issues of 2013 — the budget, immigration and guns — could pass Congress this spring. If the B.I.G. agenda goes through, the public will cheer, providing incentives for politicians to do more. It would also go some way toward rescuing our system from being the embarrassment it is now.
The key to getting anything done is the combination of an inside game (cutting deals behind closed doors) and an outside game (rallying supporters, running blistering ads).
This week, Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania showed Washington how to legislate on guns. Both have “A” grades from the National Rifle Association (Manchin was even shown firing a rifle in a 2010 campaign ad) but enough sense to know that requiring comprehensive background checks before gun purchases is an idea whose time has come. More than 90 percent of the public supports background checks; the NRA did, too, back in 1999.
The deal won the enthusiastic support of President Barack Obama and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News). It had the backing of enough conservatives to defeat an attempted filibuster; the Senate voted 68 to 31 to begin debate next week on a measure that would expand background checks to the 40 percent of gun sales that are unregulated.
The measure has a good chance of passage in the Senate. That would be a serious setback for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. When you threaten a filibuster and lose, the next threat is less potent, which means diminished power to obstruct down the road.
Pessimists say background checks will fail in the House, where the NRA has a near-stranglehold on the Republican majority. But that fails to account for the new order of battle. Supporters of background checks have put a couple of dozen swing district House members on notice: If you oppose this bill, winning your primary against a Republican extremist won’t mean much because you’ll be in deep trouble in the general election.
To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of millions of dollars’ worth of ads featuring the parents of slain Newtown children denouncing you.
After the background-check bill becomes law, get ready for comprehensive immigration reform. It probably won’t face a filibuster or sustained opposition, even from the most right- wing Republicans.
That’s because elections have consequences. All Republicans now know that they must do a better job of reaching out to Hispanics or they will go the way of the Whig Party.
It helps that the national climate is favorable for reform. The fever of U.S. nativism spikes from time to time before subsiding. Right now, it happens to be in check.
After the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the Senate bangs out a compromise between labor and business, McConnell, despite his fears of a Tea Party challenge for his seat in 2014, will have little room to maneuver. And when the bill goes to the House, where no filibusters are allowed, Democrats (who will almost all vote aye) need only about a dozen Republican votes to win.
The hardest nut to crack may be the budget, though there was progress on that front this week, too.
Republicans were sure that Obama was a Paleolithic Democrat who would never touch entitlements. He called their bluff in his budget by proposing $230 billion in savings by recalculating the way cost-of-living adjustments are assessed for entitlement programs, by using the chained consumer price index.
Predictably, progressives denounced the idea. The more intriguing reaction was from the right.
First, Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, who leads the Republicans’ 2014 campaign efforts, told CNN that Obama was “going after seniors.” This aroused Democratic fears that Republicans would once again pander to the elderly, as they did in 2010 by airing misleading ads saying that Obama was cutting Medicare by $500 billion to pay for the Affordable Care Act.
But the politics of entitlements are changing. Even as Walden’s view was endorsed by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, former representative Chris Chocola, president of the influential Club for Growth, asked Walden to “clarify” his opposition to chained CPI, which is politician-speak for “retract it now.”
“Greg Walden doesn’t seriously oppose even the most modest of reforms to Social Security, right?” Chocola asked. “With nearly $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities, the last thing Republicans should attack the Democrats for is for making the most minor reforms to our entitlement programs.”
Republican confusion on entitlements gives Obama an opening for a divide-and-conquer strategy. By making the budget and entitlement debate more fluid — less dependent on whether House Speaker John Boehner can hold his caucus — the president now has more options for finding a “good bargain,” if not a “grand” one, either in the next few weeks or when the debt ceiling has to be raised again later in the year.
Budget. Immigration. Guns. The Notorious B.I.G. agenda could very well become law in 2013, defying our expectations for political paralysis once again.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite