Zeal, this time from the center
© Greg Nash - Getty Images

For years, extremists in Congress have held the nation’s legislative agenda hostage, upending bipartisan deals with an “all-or-nothing” mentality. But recently, Capitol Hill dealmakers took a page from the extremists’ playbook, playing hardball in pursuit of progress on immigration reform. While the final outcome remains uncertain, this remarkable development could—and should—mark the dawn of a new era in Washington, where those willing to reach across the aisle no longer feel beholden to what former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE (R-Ohio) called the “anything but yes group.” We have miles left to go, but amid a bleak landscape, here is reason for hope.

Just a few years ago, comprehensive immigration reform seemed well within Washington’s grasp. Democrats and Republicans had different ideas about what needed fixing, but nearly everyone agreed that the system was broken, that the government had failed to get a handle on who was in the U.S., that the underground labor market was subject to abuse, and that a new system could drive economic growth, improve national security, and ensure the humanitarian treatment of vulnerable children.

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed, in the months after President Obama’s second inauguration, bipartisan groups in both houses of Congress began shaping comprehensive reform bills that would have satisfied members of both parties. While a gang of eight House members were negotiating the specifics of a bill Speaker BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE seemed eager to move, the Senate actually passed a bipartisan bill by a huge margin, 68 to 32. The White House was poised and ready to sign the bipartisan legislation, and conventional wisdom at the time was that the Senate margin was so large—and that so many Senate Republicans had supported it—that the House would simply follow suit.

But then partisanship reared its ugly head. Far from choosing to take up the Senate’s bill, Boehner, under intense pressure from his more conservative Republican colleagues, was compelled to declare that the House would produce its own immigration legislation, setting the Senate-passed bill aside. Despite the fact that the Senate language might well have passed the House on a straight up-or-down vote (support coming from a combination of Republicans and Democrats), Boehner felt obliged to followed the so-called “Hastert Rule” precluding him from bringing up any bill that failed to pass muster with at least half of the Republican caucus. Republicans who supported a compromise, in other words, had to take a back seat to their more conservative members. The far right precluded the full House from working its will.

When Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care Trump urges Dems to help craft new immigration laws: ‘Chuck & Nancy, call me!' Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa MORE (R-Wis.) inherited the speaker’s gavel from Boehner, he too took the precedent to heart. Few doubt today that an immigration and border security package could pass the House and Senate, sending a real and substantive fix to the president’s desk. In fact, the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 48 House members split evenly along party lines, has released a fix to the public. But Speaker Ryan, heeding the demands of the far-right Freedom Caucus and its allies, has thus far been unable to allow the Caucus bill to get a vote, or any other bipartisan compromise for that matter. As a result, most everyone has presumed, until recently, that Washington would punt on the issue until after November’s midterm elections.

But then, in a move that harkened back to Networks’s Howard Beale, a group of solutions-oriented Republicans led by Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloDems see blue 'tsunami' in House as Senate path narrows GOP spokeswoman says Republicans will lose House seats in midterms Cook Political Report shifts 7 more races towards Dems MORE (R-Fla.) stood up and said, in effect, “[We’re] mad as hell, and [we’re] not going to take this anymore!” Curbelo and his colleagues filed a “discharge petition,”—a legislative maneuver that can force consideration of legislation if a majority of House members sign it—and then they began collecting signatures from their colleagues.

As is typical with discharge petitions, once the reformers had neared the 218-signature threshold, the Speaker worked to find a new accommodation, promising to schedule a vote on immigration and border security legislation in the next several weeks. And that’s what’s so remarkable: While the bills Ryan schedules for consideration may not draw bipartisan support, absent the fortitude displayed by Curbelo and his colleagues, the immigration and border security debate would have remained frozen for the rest of the year.

This should be a lesson to the extremists. For too long, those willing to fix problems have been hamstrung by a minority of intransigent members of both parties—ideologues enthralled by the notion that if they just say no to any compromise they’ll eventually get what they want. With this immigration discharge petition, solutions-oriented members put everyone on notice. They will fight fire with fire. They won’t be pushed around anymore. They have the strength and influence to control the agenda just as well as anyone on the fringes. And they intend to use it.

]This can’t be the end of the story. Unless the House embraces true bipartisanship, this current battle may not lead to a true fix. More broadly, the far left and far right still have too much power to control the agenda because the rules governing the House and constricting the speaker are old and outdated. That’s why No Labels, the group that inspired the Problem Solvers Caucus, just released The Speaker Project, which features several bold reforms that would help give bipartisan ideas a fighting chance in the next Congress.

For now, however, those of us who want Washington to get moving should take heart from how far we’ve come. Beyond generating bipartisan proposals, the Problem Solvers and their allies seem now poised to make the sorts of demands that were once the exclusive province of the fringes—only instead of banding together to stop any and all legislation, Problem Solvers are uniting to move solutions forward. Frustrated voters should get ready. These recent developments bode well for those of us who believe the best legislation emerges when Republicans and Democrats work together to hammer out solutions that put country above party and the future ahead of the past.

Lieberman is national co-chairman of No Labels.