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Gangs in Congress Go Where Partisans Fear to Tread

The Senate "gang of eight" unveiled its bipartisan immigration bill at a packed news conference earlier this month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The Senate "gang of eight" unveiled its bipartisan immigration bill at a packed news conference earlier this month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Here’s a bit of Hill news that registered barely a ripple Thursday, in light of all the more pressing matters of the moment: Four top senators are renewing talks on what to do with the nation’s nuclear garbage.

Decades of planning to bury the country’s radioactive waste inside Yucca Mountain came to a halt four years ago, after Sen. Harry Reid made plain he’d spend all his political capital as Senate majority leader to keep the stuff away from his Nevada constituents. But that NIMBY approach is spread far and wide through the Capitol, so there was little chance that any bottoms-up legislative edict could muster a majority.

In other words, an approach dictated by the leadership was not sustainable, but a solution assembled using the committee process was not achievable. And so another Senate gang was born.

The party leaders of Energy and Natural Resources and the top Energy Department appropriators on each side will go in search of a solution that — by its very bipartisan nature — would have a decent chance of drawing the sort of filibuster-proof Senate majority that would make the House take notice.

That’s why gangs are all the rage in Congress to tackle legislatively intractable problems both in the top tier and on the second shelf. Such working groups afford at least a bit of hope — if only a very modest record of success — that the paralysis born of partisan polarization can be overcome. And that affliction has almost entirely put to death both of the standard operating procedures in use during the previous four decades.

The committee system, which became king after Watergate ushered in a wave of lawmakers demanding some say-so from day one, was replaced after the next generational turnover election two decades later, when Newt Gingrich and his ascendant GOP leaders concluded that claiming the most power for themselves was their best hope of controlling a Balkanized institution.

Relatively close partisan ratios in the House and Senate in the past dozen years and  frequent splits in party control have proved no match for either the organic or the command-and-control approach to legislating.

That was clear when the current gangland era was born.

Eight years ago, a showdown over judicial nominees came within days of a potentially cataclysmic clash over senatorial power and prerogatives. It was defused only when the “gang of 14,” its members split evenly between the parties, all promised to oppose filibusters against judges except in undefined “extraordinary circumstances.” The deal worked to keep the judicial wars at bay for six full years.

But that gang was about preventing something from happening, not making it happen. And for each victory by one of these evenly split, bipartisan working groups, there have been many more gangs that showed they couldn’t shoot straight.

In the summer of 2011, a “gang of six” came up with a plan to cut $4.6 trillion from the deficit. But the scope and timing of the deal had the perverse effect of helping torpedo  “grand bargain” talks between President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner. That’s why, even when they had bulked up to a gang of eight, the group was essentially asked to get out of the way during the fiscal cliff talks at the end of last year.

In 2009, a “gang of six” centrists on the Senate Finance Committee dais gave up after four months in search of a health-insurance expansion compromise, significantly complicating the path for Obama’s signature legislative achievement.

The year before, a “gang of 10” negotiated deep into the presidential campaign season on an energy policy package that would reward and withhold both sides’ priorities in comparable measure. Their efforts also came to nothing, even after the membership expanded to become a gang of 20.

And back in 2007, a “gang of 12” reached a compromise on an immigration overhaul that would have combined border security improvements, a temporary worker program and a lengthy path to citizenship for people in the country illegally. Their bill never got more than 45 votes on the Senate floor.

Members of this year’s “gang of eight” in the Senate — and a parallel group of eight in the House — have plenty of reasons to believe that their not-too-dissimilar versions will succeed. The reasons have as much to do with the changed national political dynamic during the past five years as with the fact that their groups span the ideological spectrum, from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to Democratic Rep.  Xavier Becerra of California.

If their work spawns a new immigration law, they will have proved the exception to the rule. If not, they will at least have what those other gang members have: A credible claim to having operated in a different way than the bickering that still defines their workplace.

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