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Budding bipartisanship gives rise to optimism in Senate

While U.S. lawmakers move on social issues, financial hurdles remain

WASHINGTON — The cherry blossoms are in bloom in Washington this week. Is long-absent bipartisanship on Capitol Hill flowering as well?

Maybe. On gun control and immigration — two longstanding contentious issues — Senate Democrats and Republicans appear close to deals to forge ahead with votes on guns and pending legislation to reshape the nation's immigration system.

While lawmakers appear to be coalescing around social issues, significant partisan schisms remain on fiscal issues, from the federal budget to deficit reduction to the size of government. The House of Representatives hasn't agreed to anything percolating in the Senate. And even in the Senate, there are still fiercely partisan skirmishes over judicial nominations and Cabinet appointments.

Still, the movement is noteworthy, particularly on guns and immigration.

Sens. Joe Manchin, a gun-loving, conservative West Virginia Democrat who once shot a climate-change bill in a campaign ad, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania conservative Republican known more for his green-eyeshades approach to fiscal matters than a fancy for firearms, helped salvage a stalled drive toward a gun-control bill by reaching an agreement — albeit a watered-down one — on background checks of gun purchases.

On immigration, a "gang of eight" Republican and Democratic senators are crafting an immigration bill that is expected to be unveiled early next week and voted on as soon as May. The disparate group includes Sens. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and tea party favorite, and Charles Schumer, the deal-making New York Democrat.

While Republican and Democratic lawmakers aren't walking arm in arm, they do appear to be doing something they haven't done in awhile: working well together.

"It's a Washington spring," proclaimed Jason Grumet, president of Washington's Bipartisan Policy Center, a group founded by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, R-Tenn.; Bob Dole, R-Kan.; Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; and George Mitchell, D-Maine.

"Everybody should be encouraged by this demonstration that members of Congress from time to time sit down and solve problems," said Grumet. "It's actually a time-honored tradition, but the fact that people are surprised by it indicates that it hasn't happened in a few years."

But this recent outbreak of political kumbaya could just be a fleeting image.

"There are some promising signs, they're mostly in the Senate for a variety of reasons, more electoral concerns," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst for the center-right American Enterprise Institute. "We haven't seen that play out in the House. The fact is the House has become more polarized. I think the worst job in America is (House Speaker) John Boehner's."

One reason for any move toward bipartisanship is the personal touch. President Barack Obama hosted a dozen Republican senators in the intimate Old Family Dining Room at the White House for two and a half hours Wednesday evening, the second such dinner meeting he's had with the opposite party's lawmakers recently.

"It's almost like ... sitting down at a cafe. We were just talking politics," said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. Very little policy was discussed, he said.

"We have differences of opinion on the role of government," said Rubio, "but the discussions were respectful."

On another level, progress is being made. Thursday's vote to cut off debate and proceed to gun safety legislation — the first time in more than a decade the Senate will have a full debate on the subject — got strong bipartisan support.

Fifty Democrats were joined by two independents and 16 Republicans to approve allowing the bill to be considered.

"It's a breakthrough," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

Republicans long known as gun rights advocates voted with Cardin. "Why wouldn't we want to debate these issues?" said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

On guns and immigration, lawmakers from both parties say they were simply following their constituents. Obama, whose campaign made overhauling immigration laws a priority, got 71 percent of the Latino vote last year, a bitter disappointment to Republicans, who quickly vowed to court the community more fervently.

The partisan schism is most pronounced on the day's biggest issue, the federal budget.

On taxes alone, the divide is deep. Obama wants nearly $1 trillion in new revenue over the next 10 years. Republicans want none. Republicans want deep domestic spending cuts; Obama has a different plan that not only cuts less, but adds new spending for infrastructure and other programs.

Grumet believes that this current spate of bipartisanship is likely to "roll along on square tires" and "lurch forward with sporadic demonstrations of political courage."

"Don't be fooled by the cherry blossoms," he said. "But enjoy them."