Is Washington Getting Less Dysfunctional?

From immigration reform to the debt ceiling, there are rampant signs the Capitol isn't the gridlocked mess to which we've become accustomed.

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Don't look now, but things are actually getting done in Washington, D.C.

Witness the last month: We didn't go over the fiscal cliff. We averted (at least for the moment) a debt-ceiling standoff. On Monday, Congress passed, with barely any drama, aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy. And the bipartisan push for comprehensive immigration reform seems to be going awfully well.

Could Washington really be getting less dysfunctional? Are we seeing an abatement of the constant rancor and gridlock that have so defined Congress in recent years? And if we were, would we even know what it looked like?

Consider the case of immigration reform. On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a legislative framework that would create a path to citizenship while tightening border security. The "Gang of Eight" are a truly disparate group of individuals, spanning the far right (Jeff Flake, Marco Rubio) and far left (Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin), brought together by their shared interest in addressing a stubborn but politically sensitive issue.

This is something Washington politicians used to do, or so I've read. It was called leading. Taking political risks to advance policy. Finding common ground, putting partisanship aside, and all those hoary bromides we've learned to roll our eyes at, because they aren't supposed to happen anymore.

On Tuesday, there were yet more good signs for immigration reform's prospects. First, Rubio went on Rush Limbaugh's radio show to talk about the proposal. It was a potentially hostile audience -- a few days before, Limbaugh had proclaimed, "It's up to me and Fox News" to stop the legislation. But Rubio went into the lion's den, expertly parried Limbaugh's objections, and won the host's praise for his efforts, which Limbaugh called "admirable and noteworthy." Other previously hostile figures on the right, from Sean Hannity to Iowa Rep. Steve King, have also made surprisingly encouraging noises about immigration reform this time around.

A little while later, President Obama spoke on immigration in Las Vegas, an address some were darkly predicting could blow up the whole thing by polarizing the debate. But Obama seemed carefully neutral, emphasizing the principles behind reform and the commonalities between his proposals and the senators'.

Even Obama, however, seemed disoriented by the strange new world of bipartisan cooperation. As he praised the progress being made in Congress, he couldn't help darkly anticipating a firestorm that hadn't yet arrived. "I believe we are finally at a moment where comprehensive immigration reform is within our grasp," he said. "But I promise you this, the closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become." It's as if the president who campaigned on Washington being broken can't imagine it being any other way.

It's true, of course, that there will be dissenters and sticking points; that legislation, once introduced, will get nitpicked; that the Republican-controlled House may be a tougher sell than the Democrat-controlled Senate. But a diversely bipartisan group of House members has also been secretly meeting on the issue and "basically [has] an agreement," according to Speaker John Boehner. Boehner himself said the day after the election, "A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself and others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all." It's worth remembering, as I've previously written, that many Republicans want immigration reform not as a way of attracting Hispanic voters, the most commonly cited reason, but because the business community and religious organizations are calling for it.

Is immigration the exception, or can we expect more productivity from Washington and a cleansing of the clogged arteries? Well, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate came together to reform the filibuster without a politically toxic showdown. Obama's secretary of state nominee, John Kerry, glided swiftly to confirmation Tuesday; opposition has diminished to his defense secretary nominee, Chuck Hagel; and the objections to his nominee for the Treasury Department, Jack Lew, appear to have fizzled. The Senate is even promising to pass a budget for the first time in more than three and a half years. On Wednesday, lawmakers will hold hearings on another of the president's priorities, gun control, where there appears to be at least some momentum for the least controversial reform proposal, increased background checks.

For veterans of the last few years in the D.C. political war zone, this sudden outbreak of comity is deeply weird. And it could all be a mirage. But at the moment, Washington actually appears to be working.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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