On the surface, Washington seems hopelessly mired in chronic partisan dysfunction. Scandal hysteria continues to fuel bitter partisan rhetoric. Senate Republicans are still obstructing humdrum presidential nominations. House Republicans are threatening (again!) to block the perfunctory but essential task of raising the debt limit. Gridlock produced the hated sequester. The broadly popular gun background-check bill remains stalled. Obama recently lamented that the partisan "fever" he hoped his re-election would cure has "not quite broken yet."
And yet, amid the recent acrimony, landmark immigration reform quietly earned a solid bipartisan vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, sending the bill to the Senate floor. And the Senate minority leader pledged not to lead a filibuster that would prevent a final up-or-down vote.
The bill cleared committee after a last-minute deal was struck between Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, making it easier for technology companies to hire foreign workers. While the agreement was a setback for the AFL-CIO, altering a previous compromise with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the union's president, Richard Trumka, did not seek to blow up the bill. He hailed the committee vote as "an enormous step toward healing an injustice."
Don't call it a comeback. Bipartisanship has been here for years.
Since Obama's re-election, we've seen bipartisan action to partially repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, temporarily suspend the debt limit, enact a Violence Against Women Act expansion, approve a judicial nominee widely seen as a Supreme Court prospect, and approve a new Medicare chief who will implement key aspects of ObamaCare.
And it's not just this year. Nearly every single piece of significant legislation enacted in the Obama era has been accomplished with Republican votes: stimulus, the re-regulation of Wall Street, Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, tougher food safety rules, ratification of an arms control treaty with Russia, and reducing the racially discriminatory disparity between crack and power cocaine jail sentences. (The lone exception is ObamaCare.)
Even the sequester is the result of bipartisanship. To win Republican votes for raising the debt limit in 2011, after already agreeing to a series of specific spending cuts, both parties committed to cutting the deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion one way or another — either by a negotiated compromise or by the sequester. They stuck to the deal.
And now, thanks to all that bipartisan support for spending cuts and tax increases, the deficit is rapidly shrinking. In fact, current deficit projections are in line with what the 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan sought to achieve by this year.
None of this is to say that bipartisanship is proof of good legislation, or that filibuster reform isn't worthwhile, or that divided government is the best government. Lots more got accomplished when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress than since Republicans took over the House.
However, this is an argument against cynicism. The system might be frustrating, even ridiculous at times. But it's not hopeless. Prioritize wisely, maintain flexibility, ignore political grandstanding, persist — and you just might find some common ground.
Does the immigration vote mean that the fever is truly broken? Have the floodgates of bipartisan cooperation been flung open? Will Democrats and Republicans return to the glorious old days of negotiating legislation over after-hours brandy?
Not quite. Not until Republicans are comfortable freely admitting they are being bipartisan. Republicans fearful of primary challenges still won't cop to working with Obama, which limits how readily and frequently compromise can occur.
To keep his caucus from rebelling, House Speaker John Boehner routinely has to pretend he's fighting Obama to the bitter end before eventually allowing bipartisan Senate legislation to reach the House floor. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have to compare Obama's actions regarding Benghazi to Watergate to obscure their cooperation with Obama on immigration. Many Republicans still attack Obama for the sequester scheme they voted into law.
Instead of a bipartisan lovefest, we have a bipartisan secret extramarital affair.
All this slinking around makes for a slow legislative process. President Obama doesn't have a lot of time left until the midterm election season heats up, when bipartisan cooperation will be even more difficult. Unless Republicans take it on the chin in 2014, immigration may be the last big legislative achievement he can notch.
But the final record will show that President Obama accomplished a great deal with the help of Republicans. And without the brandy.