Bipartisanship breaks through gridlock on Hill, but divisive battles on spending loom

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Don’t look now, but Congress might actually be working.

Bills are being written in committees before hitting the floor, Republicans and Democrats are working together to try to strike deals on big topics such as immigration, the farm bill and tax reform, and — most shocking of all — lawmakers are pursuing bipartisan investigations into administration malfeasance.

After four years of crippling partisan gridlock, which intensified in 2011 when the GOP took control of the House and the Senate remained in Democratic hands, both parties have finally found areas of common ground.

“It’s working better than it has in the last four or five years,” said Michael McKenna, a lobbyist and Republican strategist. “Part of it is driven by the fact that this pretty lengthy period of toxic presidents seems to be closing. The other part of it is members of Congress are starting to go through the same conversations that voters have gone through for three or four years now about immigration, about the big issues the country is facing.”

The biggest shift has been in the Senate. Despite some high-profile battles over budget negotiations and nominations to a federal appeals court in Washington, the chamber has cleared several major bills by overwhelming bipartisan votes, has written a budget for the first time in years, and held an open debate on gun legislation — even though that bill couldn’t pass the chamber.

Next up is immigration, for which a massive overhaul of current law cleared the key committee on a bipartisan 13-5 tally that involved votes on more than 140 amendments. Senators are now preparing for a freewheeling floor debate that could harken back to the major debates of years past, when the Senate would act on dozens of amendments without knowing how the votes would turn out.

The Judiciary Committee action, led by Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, won praise from all sides as a sign that the calcification might be breaking.

“For years now we’ve been hearing about dysfunction in the Congress. We’ve all suffered in our public opinion polling and what people think of this place, and I think this process we’ve gone through in the last couple of days, last couple of weeks, are a real antidote to that,” Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, told his colleagues after they finished a fifth day of votes in the committee.

Immigration up next

Immigration could also be a breakthrough issue in the House, where another bipartisan group is working on an immigration bill, and the official committees are preparing to churn out several pieces of legislation.

One border security bill has already cleared the House Homeland Security Committee on a bipartisan voice vote that both sides point to as the beginning of progress.

If Congress is doing better, the public isn’t convinced. Gallup’s monthly polling showed just 16 percent of the public approved of the way Congress is handling its job. That’s better than the 13 percent Congress won in March, but it’s been two years since Capitol Hill cracked 20 percent, and eight years since it sniffed the 40 percent mark.

Jim Manley, who spent years as a top aide to Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Harry Reid and is now a senior director at QGA Public Affairs, said not to get excited about the progress so far this year. He said the big fights are all still to come, and particularly on the spending battles the same stalemate exists.

Spending fight unsettled

Already, the broad budget outline that set the goals for the 12 spending bills has proved to be contentious.

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