Congress plays ‘let’s make a deal’

Updated
President Obama speaking about his proposed 2014 budget alongside acting budget director Jeff Zients in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 10, 2013.
President Obama speaking about his proposed 2014 budget alongside acting budget director Jeff Zients in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 10, 2013.
Charles Dharapak/AP

Big news on multiple fronts out of Washington  Wednesday– and the word of the day on Capitol Hill was “deal.”

The big deal Wednesday on Capitol Hill was the reaching or leaking of big deals. And the way that Washington talks about a deal is that a deal is inherently good because a deal is the end, in-and-of itself.  You’re always looking for a deal, so when you get one it must be good news!

But in the real world, where we all have to live every day, a deal is good only if it’s a good deal. Deals are, almost by-definition, cut in the center. And so what matters most in Washington deal-making is how the center is defined. And what made two of the deals being rolled-out on Wednesday —at least tentatively—promising is the fact that the center around-which they are crafted is remarkably further to the left than it was just six months ago.

Take the big, bipartisan gun deal, announced by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey. It’s pretty narrow deal, policy-wise, simply designed to expand background checks to cover gun show and internet sales. The cost of the deal, apparently, was private, person-to-person sales, which still be exempt from background checks. NBC reported today that the NRA was a “near-constant” presence in the room as Manchin and Toomey worked-out the details. And, for his part, Sen. Toomey would prefer that you not even refer to it as gun control.

See that right there. that’s the power of the center.

The center gets to be “common sense.” Everything else is defined as “politics.”  Now, as narrow as this background check deal may be when put up against the staggering problem of gun violence in this country,  it is still a remarkable thing. Even just six months ago, the idea of the senate opening debate on a bipartisan gun safety bill of any kind would have been unthinkable. There has not been a major piece of gun control legislation debated in the senate since 1994 – that was the last time we saw anything like what’s happening right now. Almost 20 years ago. The only gun measure to get through Congress during Barack Obama’s first term was, notably, an amendment to allow you to carry firearms into National Parks. And even though the NRA was apparently physically looming over the negotiations, the deal announced on Wednesday is exactly the sort of thing that the NRA has been fighting-like-crazy to prevent. The NRA’s elite, placebo nightmare is now on its way to almost coming true. In real life. In a move from Capitol Hill that could not have been imagined last year.

The other big deal in the news comes to us from the bipartisan group of eight Senators tasked with coming up with an immigration reform framework. Those eight senators are just-about-ready to present their proposal to the rest of the senate. And Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Judiciary Committee has already set a hearing for the compromise bill for one week from today.

This pivotal movement on immigration  just happened to coincide with rallies, held in Washington and all over the country pushing for reform. Now, judging from the details of the immigration compromise that are leaking to the press at this point the path to legal status for undocumented workers in this country would be obstructed by some really draconian border security requirements. But even so, again – any deal at all on immigration is a deal that would simply not have happened six months ago. Six months ago, the leader of the Republican Party sounded like this on immigration:

In a matter of months, Republicans have gone from being the party of - “I can’t have illegals” -to working out a deal with Democrats on immigration that does not center around the mystifying and cruel concept of self-deportation. Of course, having-lost the last election among Latino voters by a 44-point margin probably helped them along in their re-awakening on the issue. But even after that shellacking among Latinos, even after Republicans seemed to be coming to the table on immigration, there were moments, over the course of the last few weeks, when it looked like the base was about ready to abandon the effort.

There was Jeb Bush’s immigration book, out last month, arguing that undocumented immigrants should never be allowed a pathway to citizenship. And then, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, it was starting to look like Marco Rubio – a key member of that bipartisan group working toward a deal – might be getting cold feet.

And, to be clear Republicans still might change their minds and decide to blow this whole thing up after all. But today they’re talking about a deal on immigration. And that itself is a victory for the forces of righteousness. Both of these deals on Wednesday were, for progressives, encouraging developments because they show how what could broadly be called the Obama coalition is succeeding in pushing the center of domestic political conversation on a whole-host of major issues to the left.

On some issues, like marijuana legalization in the states and marriage equality – the Obama coalition has been able to move the conversation farther to the left, faster than anyone thought conceivable. And in domestic politics one huge pressing exception to that pattern, perhaps the only place where the center is still defined as so-far to the right that we are still living in the 2010 Tea Party world, is austerity.

The terms of the conversation about austerity and budgets and jobs are still defined by the peak moments of Gadsden flags and tri-corner hats. Which brings us to Wednesday’s third deal – a bad deal that is redeemed by the fact that it is the one of the three deals that is not yet struck. And probably won’t be. It is, instead, a deal offered in the form of the president’s budget. Which, I should say, contains some great progressive stuff.

But there’s also this. The third-to-last bullet point in a five-page summary of the president’s budget is a proposed cut to Social Security benefits. Because the center of debate on fiscal policy is so far to the right, that cutting Social Security benefits is part of the Democratic president’s budget proposal.

The center gets defined in a whole host of ways – who shows up to elections, who gets to appear on cable news, who stands outside on the National Mall or in the street carrying signs. And we’ve seen activists mobilize to tremendous early effect on guns and on immigration. And what we have not seen at this point is mass sustained mobilization against austerity. And we are seeing the results of that absence of political pressure.

Congress plays 'let's make a deal'

Updated