The contrasting paths of President Barack Obama’s two prime legislative initiatives — and the different likely outcomes — reflect the current state of politics and differing ways to cope with partisan acrimony and gridlock.
On immigration reform, the White House is playing an inside game, muting partisan rhetoric and taking a watchful but somewhat aloof stance, while a bipartisan group of senators crafts a sweeping bill that would provide a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million illegally in this country.
Proponents are optimistic, critics are frustrated, and there appears to be a real chance of a successful legislative resolution to this long-contested, controversial issue.
On gun control, however, the White House is playing a classic outside game, continuing to stage public pep rallies to press its case that mass murders like that in Newtown, Conn., require the banning of various types of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as an enhanced system of background checks for many weapons exchanging hands in the country.
The prospects for significant action remain as uncertain as when the Newtown horror prompted Obama to tackle the issue. And his very public campaign is designed as much to win the support of ordinary Americans as to pass legislation.
The bottom line on both issues is that, with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate and president, significant bipartisan support is necessary for Obama to achieve major legislative successes. Victory is far more likely on immigration than on gun control.
A significant factor is the GOP’s interest in backing immigration reform to improve its image among Hispanics. The poor performance by the last two Republican presidential candidates with Latino voters has made supporting reform more important to the GOP future than appealing to the “nativist” element that opposes such change.
The politics of gun control are very different. Support for sweeping steps such as the reinstitution and extension of the ban on assault weapons is more partisan and more centered in the mainly Democratic areas of the Northeast and Pacific Coast.
Opposition stemming from a longstanding gun culture and bolstered by the National Rifle Association’s misleading statements is intense in the more rural and more conservative areas that have inordinate voting power in Congress, thanks to gerrymandering in the House and the fact that every state has equal power in the Senate.
Significantly, in Obama’s State of the Union speech, he asked congressional leaders to give the issue a vote, rather than demand that lawmakers pass the measures. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is doing just that, despite his personal opposition to banning assault weapons.
Senate prospects for banning assault weapons seem dim, in part because of opposition from several Democrats facing re-election in conservative states, and such legislation is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House.
Despite polls showing overwhelming support among Americans, it’s even uncertain whether the Senate can pass the proposal for increased background checks of weapons buyers, since GOP filibuster threats mean it will need 60 votes, not 51.
Meanwhile, optimism on immigration reform stems from the fact that a bipartisan Gang of Eight is working behind the scenes on a Senate bill, and a similar group is working on a House measure. Business and labor leaders reportedly have agreed on provisions covering temporary guest workers, such as seasonal farm laborers.
Presumably the trickiest issue remains whether the final measure will include a path to citizenship or to legal status, how long that process will take and what steps applicants will need to pursue.
In the end, enactment of a comprehensive bill would be good for both parties. Democrats would fulfill an important election pledge, and Republicans would get the albatross of opposition off their backs, enabling them to woo Hispanics on more favorable ground.
But gun control, despite a clear need for action, remains one of those divisive issues where failure to act still serves the politics of both parties.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.