Don't Give Up on Guns, Immigration, or a Debt Deal

Jill Lawrence

If Franklin Roosevelt were in office today, he’d probably be judged on his first 100 minutes instead of his first 100 days. President Obama still has a month before he reaches that milestone of his second term, but already some pundits are judging him--and Congress--as failures.

The most angst is centered on gun-control laws, with at least one poll showing public support for new restrictions was higher right after the Dec. 14 massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., than it is now. Why hasn’t Congress already acted? The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan asked recently on NBC. Why didn’t Obama lead better, and sooner? asked The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. How could Obama and Congress have given up so easily on an assault-weapons ban? asks my colleague, Ron Fournier. On the eve of Obama’s trip to Denver, to give his second speech in a week pressing for gun safety measures, the message from some quarters is one of missed opportunities and lost hope.

Please. Given the state of our nation and our politics, and the molasses-like tempo the Founders ensured with their pesky checks and balances, you could make the case that significant proposals are advancing at breakneck speed. Negotiators on a bipartisan immigration reform package cleared their major policy hurdles by April 1. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is bringing up a gun package next week, and will allow amendments that include the assault-weapons ban. A dim light even remains visible at the far end of the fiscal tunnel, with some in Congress still seeing an opportunity for a major bargain on spending and taxes, if not a grand one. And all this is well within the first 100 days of Obama’s inauguration.

Results on any of these are not guaranteed, of course, but I don’t buy the argument that more speed or speeches by Obama could have shaped any of these outcomes. The real bottom line is political imperatives. Who needs what, how badly, and how fast?

The national Republican Party is the neediest political entity out there these days, with its potentially fatal unpopularity among young and minority voters, and an obstructionist image so ingrained that in a new Gallup Poll question about GOP vulnerabilities, the top problem was “unwilling to compromise” and the people who mentioned it most were … Republicans.

All of those factors are combining to produce what congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute cautiously calls “green shoots.” Ornstein and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution have written two definitive books on Washington dysfunction: The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track (2008), and It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (2012). They’ve been so pessimistic for so long that it’s notable how relatively sanguine the two are now.

Mann, about to board a flight, told me in an e-mail this week that “we still might get something useful if not transformative” on guns, but “Obama can do little to speed it or strengthen it.” Immigration, he said, “is coming along and will get done.” As for the budget, the no-tax pledge signed by nearly all Republicans in Congress “remains the big obstacle, but they are working at it.”

Ornstein’s assessment, delivered separately in a phone conversation, is similar. “Nothing in Congress is inexorable, but a movement toward some reasonable immigration reform is close to that,” he said. He senses “genuine bullishness” among some Republicans on the prospects for a major fiscal deal. And he said he’ll be surprised if Congress doesn’t pass some form of expanded background checks for gun buyers, the centerpiece of the Reid package, despite vows of a filibuster by five GOP senators.

Three of those senators--Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas--are trying to build national profiles, perhaps in preparation for national races. But it’s hard to see how this would benefit them or their party, outside of assuring the money flow from the National Rifle Association and possible success in primaries dominated by very conservative voters. Polls show nine in 10 Americans support a universal background-check system, as do eight in 10 Republicans.

If the GOP filibusters a background-check bill, Ornstein envisions this Democratic response: An energized Obama on the road, Newtown families all over the media, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg sinking more millions into ads for the gun-control cause. In the court of public opinion, “it’s a loser for them,” he said of the GOP.

It’s true that intensity runs higher on the gun-rights side. But the foot-dragging charge against Obama and Congress just doesn’t hold up. Consider the timeline: Obama named Vice President Joe Biden to head a task force on gun safety five days after the shooting and announced its recommendations four weeks later. Reid is bringing up his admittedly much reduced package less than four months after the shooting.

That puts the Senate only slightly behind Connecticut, where lawmakers reached an agreement this week. The Senate is way ahead of Colorado, which enacted new gun laws seven months after the Aurora shootings. And that’s in a state that’s been through two traumatic massacres, and has a Democratic Legislature and a Democratic governor--in other words, a much simpler situation than a divided Congress with many members whose states and districts have not been so directly affected.

That brings us to the not so small matter of the Republican-controlled House. My own statistical analysis indicates that if Speaker John Boehner follows custom, he will allow votes six times on items with more support from Democrats than Republicans. Ornstein says his gut tells him the same thing. Boehner already has used up half of his opportunities: on Hurricane Sandy relief, on a fiscal-cliff deal, and on the Violence Against Women Act. That leaves him three more chits, and both Ornstein and I are betting that he’ll use them for gun legislation, immigration reform, and a big fiscal bargain. That is, assuming those first pass the Senate on bipartisan votes. Which, in a sign of changing times, is not out of the question.