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A week of legislating the old-school way

Perhaps you recognize this: Lawmakers from different parties, standing behind a microphone and in front of a flag, explaining how they crafted legislation on an issue important to their country.

It happened this week when two senators, Democrat Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, announced on Wednesday a bill that would require background checks on some gun purchases. The bill will prompt a rare congressional consideration of gun control this month, thanks to the courage of Senate Republicans who bucked their party and voted against a filibuster of the legislation.

By themselves, the bill and filibuster vote were a notable shift for Congress, which has had few shared microphones in recent years. But also this week, the New York Times reported that a bipartisan group of senators had reached agreement on a broad immigration reform bill. And on the budget front, President Barack Obama released a 2014 plan that included a significant concession to Republicans – “chained CPI” – an entitlement reform that reduces Social Security benefits by changing the way inflation is measured.

Add it up, and you have a week of old-school legislating, the kind in which leaders quietly search for places in which they agree instead of loudly trumpeting how they don’t. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

The Manchin-Toomey gun bill is far from perfect. While it expands background checks to include unlicensed dealers at gun shows, as well as online sales, it includes a provision that exempts criminal checks for private sales of guns or transfer of firearms between friends and family members. That means that someone could find a firearm at a gun show, then agree to execute the sale off-site without a background check.

We hope upcoming debate on the bill tightens the loophole, but we understand how others think the legislation already goes too far. This, of course, is what compromise is – an acceptance that it’s better to get some of what you want than a lot of nothing. That mindset has been lost in a wave of tea party-fed obstinence, resulting in too many lawmakers believing that principles trump productivity every time. Make no mistake – Democrats are guilty, too. Obama’s inclusion of chained CPI in his budget has prompted howling from the left, as will any proposed concessions on entitlement reforms.

We’re also not pretending that this week signals a grand, altruistic change of heart from lawmakers. What’s happening is that Republicans are reading polls and seeing that voters largely disagree with them on immigration and gun background checks. Obama is reading those same polls, which say that Americans want compromise on the budget.

The gun bill and immigration reform remain fragile propositions, if only because they must pass the U.S. House, where Republicans care less about national opinion and more about their conservative districts back home. The compromises could unravel before they even reach that chamber, as advocacy groups turn up the heat on senators.

But for a week, at least, we’ve seen the promise of legislators willing to engage in the messy, risky, collaborative process of confronting our country’s issues. Or, as we voters like to put it: Doing their jobs.

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