The concentrated conservative counterattack against the immigration proposal from the Senate “Gang of Eight” is testing not only the GOP’s willingness to reposition itself on this emotional issue but also informal alliances as an antidote to congressional polarization.
“Gangs” such as the four Republicans and four Democrats who drafted the immigration bill represent an evolutionary adaptation to Congress’s increasing rigidity. These ad hoc coalitions, which have sprouted in recent years on everything from energy to judicial nominations, have proliferated precisely as rising polarization has hobbled congressional committees. The committees were never entirely immune from the partisan gales that buffeted Congress, but historically many were somewhat sheltered from the storms. Through long hours mastering complex issues, panel members built personal relationships across party lines that didn’t always produce agreement but did allow for candid and substantive negotiation.
The tradition of the committee as a safe place for negotiation has dwindled toward extinction since the 1990s. Today, debate is usually as polarized there as on the House or Senate floor. “In the past, if you could … get something through a committee, it was a pretty good marker for getting it through the [whole] body,” says Michael Franc, vice president for government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “But now, the committees are as balkanized and as ideologically divided as the parties in general and have been bypassed so many times by the leadership that they are not the venue [for deal-making] anymore.”
The informal gangs, which have developed primarily in the Senate, are an attempt by deal-minded legislators to fill that vacuum on big issues. With polarization increasingly clogging the conventional paths to agreement (either at the committee level or through leadership), senators convene a coalition of the willing to chart a bypass. The most effective groupings resemble those melting-pot Army squads from World War II movies; their common theory is that the full Senate is more likely to accept their compromise if the group reflects the overall body in miniature.
In practice, the experience has been mixed. The most successful modern gang may have been the first: the bipartisan group that then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood organized to rescue tax reform when it faltered in 1986. The immigration bill crafted by Sens. John McCain and the late Edward Kennedy that cleared the Senate on a bipartisan vote in 2006 (before failing in the House) constituted another qualified success. So did the “Gang of 14” that resolved a 2005 standoff over judicial nominations, although that was somewhat unique because members of the group did not need to persuade their colleagues to accept their plan. (Their agreement was self-executing because, by voting together, the 14 could prevent either Democratic filibusters on judicial nominations or a unilateral effort by the GOP leadership to change the Senate rules.)
More-recent examples have fizzled. Another group effort on immigration fractured in 2007. The 2008 energy “Gang of 10” never ignited. In 2009, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus channeled Packwood by convening a bipartisan gang on health care, but it couldn’t reach agreement. Members of the bipartisan “Gang of Six” on the budget produced a framework for deficit reduction that generated broad praise from their colleagues in July 2011. But it was quickly submerged in the turbulence surrounding the debt-ceiling negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
The recent proposal from Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to expand background checks for gun purchases provides another discouraging precedent: Despite broad support in public polls and the imprimatur of two such unquestioned conservatives, the proposal still split the Senate almost entirely along predictable party lines.
The Gang of Eight’s immigration bill has assets the gun proposal lacked. One is that many Republicans feel an imperative to resolve the issue before the 2016 election. Another is that the gang is weighty and diverse, ranging from Senate veterans such as McCain and Democrats Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, to young Republican conservatives Marco Rubio and Jeff Flake. But recent attacks from National Review, the Heritage Foundation, and Judiciary Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., have underscored the persistence of the conservative resistance that derailed reform in 2006 and 2007.
This blowback will test the essential contradiction of these alliances. The gangs are necessary because the parties’ institutional leadership—not only their congressional leaders but also their allied interest groups—have largely lost the ability to mediate their differences. The catch-22 is that it’s unclear whether enough legislators will accept any agreement while those institutional forces remain divided. That’s especially true among conservatives, who have generally resisted the gangs.
Jim Kessler, senior vice president of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, believes that if the Senate approves immigration reform, it will encourage more center-out negotiations. “Once you’ve had a success … then maybe you are opening the floodgates to more things,” Kessler says. But if a bill with such powerful parents fails in the Senate, or even stalls in the House, it will suggest that this latest pathway around polarization may be a dead end, too.