On an April day in Washington that felt more like a dog day in August due to temperatures spiking into the 90s, the heat on Capitol Hill wasn’t just thermal but political.
There was very visible political heat in the form of thousands of people who came to march on and rally in front of Congress as part of their push for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
There was also heat in the form of activity and rhetoric on gun control and the federal budget.
In what appeared a significant step in the gun-control debate, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., announced a bipartisan agreement to expand background checks to individuals who buy guns at gun shows and online.
Meanwhile, President Obama finally delivered his budget proposal for fiscal 2014 to Congress, months later than is typical for presidents. All that meant, however, was that House and Senate Republicans had more time beforehand to calibrate the torpedoes they would aim at Obama’s budget. But once they saw the budget, they did suggest there might be common ground, for instance, in cutting entitlement spending.
Of all the major issues that were top of mind Wednesday, immigration certainly cried out for the most attention, literally and figuratively, as Vice President Joe Biden might say. Thousands of people, some with drums and those horns known as vuvuzelas, gathered on the south front of the Capitol to persuade lawmakers that it was past time to fix a broken immigration system.
Chants of “Si se puede” and “Immigration is not a crime” could be heard across the Capitol grounds; waves of marchers with banners and flags of both the U.S. and their homelands were undeterred by the unseasonal heat.
As the rally swelled, others who had come to lobby for an immigration overhaul walked the cool, white marble-lined halls of the Hart Senate Office Building to visit lawmakers’ offices, especially those of the members of the bipartisan “gang of eight” senators trying to agree on immigration overhaul legislation.
Jose Machado of Miami, a wise-beyond-his-years high school senior was among them. He joined about 70 others, including a group of mothers, who lobbied on behalf of DREAMers, young people in the U.S. who lack proper immigration documentation.
Machado and part of his group visited the offices of Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and one of the eight Senate negotiators. They met the senator’s special counsel for immigration among other staffers, Machado said.
“I felt very optimistic with his office,” he said. “I think they supported us and what we wanted and I think they’re headed in the right direction. It’s just a matter of getting it done as soon as possible so families don’t get separated anymore.”
Machado couldn’t linger to talk since his group by that point needed to make its way to the large rally. But Cristina Jiminez, managing director of the United We Dream network, told me that the young man personally knows the heartbreak of family separation related to immigration enforcement. His parents were both deported and a cousin who in their absence has been his guardian is now in deportation proceedings as well.
“That’s one story that makes you feel the urgency of doing something and the urgency to create a real pathway for, not only Jose, but Jose’s guardian and many families that are struggling in the country,” Jiminez said.
Over at the Senate subway platform, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, a 36-year Senate veteran, stopped to talk to a group of reporters who waylaid him on all the reasons why the president’s budget was a nonstarter.
“You could go on for hours about what’s wrong with this budget,” Hatch said. “The biggest problem with it is that he knows it can’t be accepted by each house (of Congress.)”
He was more upbeat on an immigration overhaul, however.
“I do think we can do some good on immigration. You’ve got my (Immigration Innovation Act known as I Squared) bill, which would take care of the STEM-type people — engineers, mathematicians, etc., the highly educated people who we’d like to keep in our industries over here. That bill has 25 co-sponsors and going up every day.”
He was less sure about what he’ll do with the result of the gang of eight’s efforts.
“Right now their bill is talking points. It’s not a formal bill,” he said. “And you can’t really say you’re for or against it without really reading it.”
Hatch was less ambivalent about the Manchin-Toomey compromise to expand background checks on gun purchases.
“I probably won’t support that,” he said. “I just believe we’re restricting liberty and ignoring the Second Amendment. I’ll have to look at it. … I’ve got an open mind on it. But probably not. That isn’t going to solve these problems. It’s not going to solve Sandy Hook, Newtown…”
At a morning news conference, GOP leaders used the same “hostage” talking point they’ve employed since last week when the White House revealed the president’s budget would include spending reductions to Social Security and Medicare.
“He does deserve some credit for some incremental entitlement reforms that he has outlined in his budget,” Speaker John Boehner said. “But I would hope that he would not hold hostage these modest reforms for his demand for bigger tax hikes.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said: “If the president believes, as we do, that the programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security are on the path to bankruptcy and that we actually can do some things to put them back on the right course and save them, to protect the beneficiaries of these programs, we ought to do so.
“And we ought to do so without holding them hostage for more tax hikes.”
Recall that Obama has variously accused Republicans of taking the nation hostage over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff standoffs. So this appears to be a case of Republicans showing he isn’t the only one capable of dropping this particular “h” bomb.
The recent death of conservative icon Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, was worked into the message of more than one House Republican at the news conference.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said: “In the words of Margaret Thatcher, you may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.
“And as we stand here before you today, it’s a — it’s a same battle. It’s a — it’s a battle for America’s future.”
And as we all know, you can’t be in a battle without at some point being in the heat of it.