Compromise is one of the noblest words in the political lexicon. Especially when power is divided between the parties, as it is now, governing a country this vast and diverse is virtually impossible unless lawmakers bring a certain level of trust and flexibility to the bargaining table.
Too often in today’s Washington, too many legislators — in both parties — refuse to acknowledge this basic truth. Too often, compromise is equated with betrayal, even treason. But without it, the machinery of democracy seizes up and breaks down.
That’s why the immigration reform bill that recently emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 13-to-5 vote was such a heartening development. A bipartisan “Gang of Eight” — four Republicans and four Democrats -- forged a reasonable, common sense package and then defended it against attacks from both sides. The center survived.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the chief conservative critic of the measure, expressed his frustration at the Gang of Eight’s success to the Washington Post: “They announced ... that they would rally around and defeat any amendment that would alter their agreement. The core has held, and the bill is coming forward to the floor of the Senate with not a lot of changes.”
There is a long way to go. A fusillade of amendments will assail the bill when it hits the Senate floor in June, and hard-line conservatives in the House are plotting to torpedo the entire effort. But there’s a real possibility that the core will keep holding, and the bill will become law later this year.
Four challenges to the immigration measure show how compromise can work in practice: how consensus-building is not entirely dead in a capital that often seems gripped by holy war. The first challenge came from the left and involved the rights of legally married gay couples.
A citizen can easily gain a green card or permanent residency for a non-American spouse of the opposite sex. But same-sex couples do not have the same right, and gay activists lobbied hard for an amendment that would grant them equality.
That’s certainly a worthy goal, but in a compromise nobody gets everything they want. Liberals had to face a harsh fact: Giving gay couples equal rights was a deal breaker for Republicans. “To try to redefine marriage within the immigration bill would mean the bill would fall apart,” said Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a key member of the Gang of Eight.
Then there were the numbers. Perhaps 30,000 gay couples could benefit from a marriage amendment, but many millions of illegal immigrants could potentially gain citizenship from the bill that the amendment would jeopardize. The cost-benefit calculus was clear. The amendment was withdrawn.
The second challenge came from the right: a strong push to make a path for citizenship contingent on enhanced border security. The Gang of Eight accepted some modest suggestions from Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the panel’s senior Republican, but rejected targets for severely reduced immigration flows that would have been impossible to meet.
The third challenge was posed by organized labor and concerned visas for foreign-born graduates of American universities with STEM degrees (science, technology engineering and math). The original measure doubled the number of visas granted annually, but unions pushed the sponsors to make them harder to use by high-tech companies.
Those companies lobbied fiercely to ease those new restrictions and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said he could not support the bill unless the limits were alleviated. Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York faced a tough choice: side with the unions or win Hatch’s vote. They went with Hatch and broadened the coalition backing the bill.
The fourth challenge involves the use of facts. There is an extremely pernicious notion out there that facts don’t exist — that there’s no such thing as independent reality, just subjective opinion. The Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, issued a report alleging that the immigration bill would cost American taxpayers more than $6 trillion. But even fellow conservatives could not swallow the report’s total disregard for the clear consensus among professional experts that immigration boosts economic growth.
Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour dismissed the report as “a political document. It’s not a serious analysis.” That’s exactly what it was, and to their credit, most committee members rejected it as ideology, not evidence.
The committee action was one victory in a long war, but any time the spirit of compromise wins in Washington these days, it’s worth celebrating.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.