The Era of Partisanship Isn't Over

PHOTO: There are smiles all around as immigration reform legislation is outlined by the Senates bipartisan "Gang of Eight", on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 18, 2013.

Drafters of the Senate's immigration bill say should it pass, it won't just fix the country's immigration system; it could spark a new era of bipartisanship that will allow lawmakers to address other divisive issues like a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction and future gun legislation.

"There is a different mood in the Senate," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) of the immigration "Gang of Eight" told reporters Thursday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "We hope that our immigration bill sets the model for coming to bipartisan agreements on other major issues."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another "Gang of Eight" member, also sees the immigration bill as a potential turning point for Congress. "I do, for the first time in some time, harbor some optimism about a chance for a bipartisan approach toward some of the really compelling issues we're facing," he said.

It's easy to see why McCain and Schumer would think that bipartisanship could be making a comeback in Washington. The immigration debate has produced some unusual alliances. Last week, Mitt Romney's old running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) toured Chicago together to push for immigration reform. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, typically enemies, shared the same stage at a press conference to roll out the Senate immigration bill.

Lawmakers are also hungry to get back into the good graces of the American public at a time when Congress' approval ratings are near their all-time lows. And what better way to do that than by showing cooperation across the aisle?

"We all seek approval; that's part of the reason why we do this, and to serve the people effectively," McCain said last week. "The majority of Americans think we're not doing that. Sooner or later, that does have an impact … If it continues along this path, you're going to see a third party in the United States."

But can an agreement on immigration reform really make increased bipartisanship in Congress a trend?

So far, there has been little real evidence to suggest that will happen. The bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks on gun sales failed to pass the Senate this month, an event that President Obama called a "shameful day for Washington."

Obama introduced his own budget proposal that would slow the rate of growth of Social Security benefits, language designed to attract Republican support. He's even dined with GOP senators. But so far, Republicans have dismissed his plan and a budget pact looks just as elusive as it has in the past.

Yes, the immigration debate has given us some stunning examples of bipartisan compromise and that may be enough to get a bill passed. But it's likely not enough to reverse the decades-long trend of increased partisanship and polarization, according to non-partisan political analysts like Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker.

A whole host of political science data shows that Congress has become more polarized along party lines, beginning in the middle of the 20th century and rapidly accelerating during the past 25 years.

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