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Inside Washington

Peggy Orchowski: What’s Next for 112th Congress — Gridlock or Bipartisanship?

There are at least three reasons we can expect more cooperation among lawmakers

Despite grim prognostics about gridlock and rabid partisanship in the new 112th Congress, as a congressional reporter for more than seven years, I don’t agree. There are three reasons I believe Democrats and Republicans, after a lot of loud initial huffing and puffing by their leaders, may cooperate to pass a number of bills — including on higher education and immigration reform (my two beats).

Peggy Orchowski
Peggy Orchowski

First, neither party is ideologically monolithic. Both eventually will be moved away from their extreme fringes.

The Democrats feel pressure from their fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who are normally tolerant on social issues (except gun control). While their numbers in Congress have been reduced by nearly half, the 25 or so remaining in the Blue Dog caucus — backed by their practical, populist Midwest and mountain states supporters — could be a strong Democratic swing-centrist influence in the 112th Congress. The only way for progressives to silence this bloc is to find — soon — 220 can-win-in-2012 liberal candidates in the entire country to take back the House of Representatives and 30 for the Senate.

The Republicans, of course, now have the Tea Partiers, who have been variously described as Libertarians, independents, and right-wing, highly conservative, angry white senior citizens. But in a recent comprehensive study by the Brookings Institution, it was found that Tea Party members are more diverse (including ethnically) than their image. They usually fall philosophically in the middle between the corporate country-club Republican and the passionate, religious, social conservative. The populist message they send to Republican Party regulars is: “We’ll be watching you!”

Secondly, there are broad areas of agreement between both parties on certain issues. Both parties support education and immigration, of course. Their differences lie in their views of the role the national government should play. It can be said that in education, Republicans generally want less of a role for national government, and more when it comes to immigration. But Republicans seem to feel that if the government doesn’t perform its “proper” role, then states and local governments are constitutionally allowed to do it. Democrats seem to feel just the opposite.

Sometimes middle ground can be reached just by changing terminology. For instance, in education policy, there now seems to be some consensus that it is all right for the U.S. Department of Education to propose “common” standards of learning achievement — but not “national” standards. All parties now seem to agree that teachers’ evaluations should include some aspect of relative annual student learning and improvement, if it isn’t called “student performance.”

On immigration, both parties usually agree that immigration laws should be enforced — especially on the border and in corporate employers’ offices. Strategically and semantically, legislation that includes strengthening enforcement first before giving eventual legalization to some selected illegal immigrants (such as regular agricultural workers and young U.S. high school graduates) is more acceptable than “enforcement only” bills. Democrats even seem to be bending toward allowing a few of their most cherished immigration proposals to be considered as separate bills and not as part of an omnibus comprehensive proposal.

The third reason I believe there will be some bipartisan cooperation on some issues is that it’s not in either party’s electoral interests to be seen only as obstructionists. Electoral success in 2012 will depend on whether either party has actually accomplished something other than gridlock.

In this atmosphere, there are actually some immigration reform proposals that may have a chance of passing as stand-alone bills. Two overlap with higher education. Bill Gates’ suggestion to provide automatic green cards to every foreign student who graduates with an advanced degree from a U.S. university in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) has strong bipartisan and media interest. Proponents argue that forcing brilliant foreign graduates to return home after years of study in the United States is a waste of our educational resources and their talent.

Opponents argue that increasing the number of green cards for highly educated graduates will come at the expense of reducing the number given to extended family members of often poor, low-skilled immigrant workers. It’s true that family unification has been favored since 1965, but the public and official mood now leans toward giving more green cards to highly skilled, college graduate immigrants.

Similarly. there is now some visible support for the DREAM Act. As proposed, it would give permanent residency to 2 million illegal immigrants who came into the country before age 16, are not older than 35, and who completed two years of college or military service. If it is reworked to fix the excesses, it may succeed in the 112th Congress (the House approved the measure on Wednesday). It may even be negotiated as part of a trade: the DREAM Act for a reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment to exclude children born to illegal immigrants and to short-term temporary visa holders.

Another possible candidate for passage in the 112th Congress is a good agriculture jobs bill that would ease entry and exit of vitally needed circulatory and temporary migrant agriculture workers.

Perennially proposed by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., it has been opposed consistently by Congressional Hispanic Caucus leader Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who has maintained that the caucus would oppose any immigration bill that is temporary and doesn’t include a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States.

But the Hispanic caucus will be weaker in the 112th Congress (Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva barely won back his seat, and Texas’ Solomon Ortiz lost unexpectedly). The tone also might be modified because of the possible inclusion of five newly elected Hispanic congressmen — all of whom are Republican.

So I expect to see some bipartisan bill-passing in the 112th. And I have big backup! Both the Democrats and the Republicans know very well that the Blue Dogs, the Tea Partiers and significant numbers of American independents will be watching for action.

— Peggy Sands Orchowski, who lived in Santa Barbara for more than 40 years, is the credentialed congressional reporter for the Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education in Washington, D.C., and author of Immigration and the American Dream: Battling the Political Hype and Hysteria. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from UCSB.

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