Progress on Guns and Immigration
It’s taken a while but spring has finally come to Washington. The weather is warming, personal moods are improving and thousands of tourists continue to flock to what remains of the world famous cherry blossoms near the Jefferson Memorial.
There are signs of a ‘political spring’ as well. Progress is being made in the Senate toward the most significant gun control legislation in about two decades. And a bipartisan group of senators is preparing to put forward a plan for comprehensive immigration reform that holds real potential for enactment. We’re still a long way off from Congress actually passing legislation, but given the recent history of Washington political gridlock, these early signs of progress are producing a sense of optimism, at least for now.
The Legacy of Newtown
Even the strongest supporters of the Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms couldn’t help but be moved by the sight of some of the Newtown, Connecticut, families making the rounds on Capitol Hill. Just months after a horrific shooting incident that took the lives of their children at Sandy Hook Elementary school, family members went to congressional offices to plead their case for tighter background checks for gun buyers.
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia was brought to tears during his meeting with Newtown parents. Manchin, a conservative Democrat, has emerged as the key player in trying to get something through a polarized Senate even as opponents are heavily pressured by the powerful National Rifle Association. Manchin teamed up with Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who described the effort as more about “common sense” than gun control. Their proposal would require background checks for those trying to buy weapons at gun shows and on the Internet.
Liberals regard the effort as a minimal approach to the gun problem in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. With the way now clear to a lengthy Senate debate on the issue, some of the stronger anti-gun Democrats like Dianne Feinstein of California and Patrick Leahy of Vermont will push for reinstating a ban on assault weapons and limiting the size of ammunition magazines. But those measures are in doubt in the Senate as a whole, and likely face little prospect of passage in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.
The best hope may be a bill that beefs up background checks and that attracts enough Republican votes in the Senate to be seen as a bipartisan effort. That would set up a tough fight in the House, where the only road to passage would seem to be forming a rough coalition of virtually all House Democrats and small group of remaining Republican moderates.
But something has to emerge from the Senate first and we not close yet to that happening. Some of the Senate Republicans who supported having a full debate on the gun issue are already on record as saying they won’t likely vote for whatever emerges as the final proposal.
Complicating all this is the 2014 election cycle that begins later this year. Even a number of Democrats from so-called “red” Republican states will be leery to cross the National Rifle Association in the run up to an election year, fearful of those dreaded 30-second TV ads that could easily sway voters.
Some Democrats recall the 1994 midterm congressional elections in which Republicans captured control of the House for the first time in 40 years. That was thanks in part to a crime bill supported by Democrats that year that included a 10-year ban on assault-style weapons that sparked a fierce counter-campaign led by the NRA that helped to sink a number of House and Senate Democrats in conservative states. So the closer we get to the 2014 campaign cycle, the more complicated the politics of gun control becomes.
Immigration Fast Track
The other area for optimism in the near-term is immigration reform. A bipartisan group of eight senators will soon release a plan that ties improved border security to the aspirations of millions of immigrants who would like to legalize their status in the U.S. and eventually become citizens.
Republicans have a huge political stake in making progress in this area. All you have to do is review the election results from 2012 when President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote even as he lost the white vote to Mitt Romney. The prospects for future Republican presidential candidates are dim unless they can find a way to reduce the Democratic advantage among Latinos and Asian-Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in the country.
Rubio Front and Center
Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, is getting the most attention among the group of eight senators pushing for changes in immigration policy. Rubio could parlay a successful effort in immigration in the Senate to a legitimate run for president in 2016. But in the meantime, he’s protecting his right flank by staking out a conservative position on gun control (basically he’s a “no”) and trying to assure his conservative Tea Party supporters that he really is one of them.
Rubio’s track on immigration and guns seems to be a case study on how a modern Republican with national aspirations is trying to thread the political needle. First off, don’t do anything to antagonize your conservative base. Rubio was elected with Tea Party support in Florida in 2010 and can’t be seen to turn his back on that constituency. Mitt Romney had to make peace with the Tea Party and conservative factions of the party last year to be viable. Rubio will be closely observing that model if he decides to make a White House run in 2016.
But Rubio also understands that Republicans need to do something to make themselves more appealing to moderate voters in the general election when conservative ideology is less important. Rubio wants to be out in front of this effort, but not too far. He can’t risk hurting himself with the right early in the process when he will need to galvanize those voters in the caucus and primary contests.
If Rubio does run, he could find himself campaigning against other conservatives in the primaries like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. He’ll do all he can to make sure they don’t outflank him on the right, something Mitt Romney did effectively in 2012 in fending off a challenge from Texas Governor Rick Perry.