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There are signs of moderation in Washington that could provide opportunities for progress on major policy issues, with the potential for immigration reform leading the way, and the chance for a deficit reduction deal at least emerging as a possibility.
A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on the principles of an overarching immigration bill. Most significantly it includes support from Republicans for providing a pathway to citizenship for roughly 12 million immigrants now living in the country illegally. Republicans, attacked from their right flank, have previously backed away from embracing any proposal that critics could label an amnesty program, even when introduced by Republican President George W. Bush. But the dynamics of the recent election have changed the political math. Republicans see their terrible performance in attracting Latino votes as a major contributor to their failure to gain the White House and their disappointing showing in Senate races. Some Republican leaders see passing an immigration reform bill as a necessary step to begin winning back Latino votes.
For President Obama, passage of an immigration bill would - along with being the Democratic president to realize the party's long sought goal of enacting a national health care law - be a legacy achievement. President Obama, who today will outline his own immigration proposals in a Las Vegas speech, is likely to sign any legislation that has reasonable steps to citizenship for those now functioning in a shadow economy.
In return for their support Republicans seek verifiable proof of improved border security. They also want a better exit tracking system to trace those foreigners who are overstaying their visas. These are reasonable policies.
Most exciting is a recognition by both sides to increase the number of visas and green cards available for immigrants with advanced technology and science skills.
Reaching agreement on details of immigration policy will be challenging, but there is reason for optimism.
It is politically vital that the legislation flow from the Senate, with its Democratic majority and more moderate Republicans, and build momentum toward approval in the Republican-controlled House, likely with the help of a large vote by the Democratic minority.
Movement on immigration comes a week after a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the House voted to stave off until May a potential showdown over raising the debt limit. The Republic House leadership backed off its threat to block lifting the debt ceiling - causing the U.S. government to default on its obligations - if it did not get dollar-for-dollar spending reductions. The approach utilized a flawed equation because, as the president noted, it would mean refusing to provide the means to meet obligations already incurred by the government.
Republicans will now continue the fight on more appropriate ground. During the final days of the last debt-ceiling fight in 2011, Congress formed the so-called "supercommittee" and charged it with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Its unsurprising failure will lead to automatic cuts of that size, half from defense and half from domestic accounts, beginning March 1 unless a different approach is agreed on or another delay approved. While such mandatory cuts might be attractive to fiscal hawks, the meat-ax approach will cripple necessary defense and domestic programs along with any wasteful ones. And it would likely damage the economy.
Still another deadline looms March 27, when the latest in a series of continuing resolutions to pay for government expires.
Pushing off the false debt ceiling debate buys time for genuine negotiation on the budget. It is time for the Democratic Senate and President Obama to respond in kind with proposals for tax reform, curbing spending, and making changes to Medicare and Social Security to assure their long-term viability.
Any House and Senate tax and spending plans are likely to be far different and present a very difficult challenge finding a compromise, but there can be no compromise until both sides know what they are arguing over.