WASHINGTON — A filibuster averted. A likely accord on immigration reform. A former Republican presidential candidate thanked – publicly! – by the Senate's top Democrat. Lawmakers of both parties lunched together for the first time many could remember, agreeing to agree on the heroism of Sen. John McCain and the tragedy of the Newtown, Conn., massacre.
Bipartisanship broke out on Capitol Hill on Thursday, a newsy development after years of polarization that infuriated the public, brought Congress to a near-halt and the country to the brink of economic disaster. It could all blow to pieces by the time you read this article – fierce disputes remain on gun control and immigration, among others issues. And looming over it all is a midterm election next year with big implications for the divided government and President Barack Obama's legacy.
But let history record that for a full day in battle-scarred Washington there it was: legislative progress, bipartisan bread-breaking and the emotional stuff of human relationships long-mourned and little-seen in recent years.
Obama helped set the harmonic tone in his budget Wednesday, calling for cuts that Republicans have been urging in benefit programs for years. The gesture was widely seen as an effort to preserve the prospects of immigration and gun control legislation.
But at the center of all of the civility was McCain, the president's vanquished GOP opponent from the 2008 presidential election. The gruff Washington veteran, Vietnam war hero and, lately, scolder of would-be obstructionists in his own party threw cold water on a filibuster threat by 13 conservative senators who oppose gun control.
"What are we afraid of?" the Arizona senator said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Why not take it up and amend it and debate?"
A bipartisan gun control deal by freshman Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., inspired Senate conservatives to drop their filibuster plans, even though many Republicans who allowed the legislation to advance said they were unlikely to vote for its passage. Also helping to remove the obstruction were the family members of some of the 20 children and six adults murdered by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School who had spent days lobbying lawmakers for stricter gun control laws. Several lawmakers said they were brought to tears in those meetings.
On Thursday, the Senate departed from its streak of legislating by filibuster. Under the grim gaze of Sandy Hook victims' relatives, 16 Republicans voted with 50 Democrats and two independents to begin debate on tightening the nation's gun laws. In the gallery over the chamber, some in the delegation wiped away tears, held hands and appeared to pray as each senator cast a vote.
Much emotional debate lay ahead and the Toomey-Manchin bill's fate was far from certain. But after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave Republicans – "especially John McCain" – some rare, nationally televised credit for the progress.
"There have been many things written in the last several months about how the Senate cannot operate," Reid, who frequently decries congressional dysfunction, said on the Senate floor. "John McCain has been a leader in this country for 31 years. People respect his opinion."
Senators then adjourned to spend time together at a lunch for McCain to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his release from captivity in Vietnam. In a gilded room named for John, Robert and Edward Kennedy, surrounded by black-and-white photos of a young McCain returning on crutches, Republicans, Democrats and independents dined on enchiladas and tilapia as McCain revealed harrowing details of his captivity and torture.
The account of McCain's five years as a POW was new to some in attendance. Several said they were moved to tears by it, reminded again of bigger matters than how this or that vote would go over with certain constituents back home.
"It makes you think about the human condition," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
Even Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican tea partyer whose 12-hour filibuster delaying the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director inspired a rebuke from McCain, emerged reporting good times.
"He got a standing ovation from both parties," Paul said. "The idea of defending the country brings everybody together."
Late in the day, there was even more apparent progress: Four Democratic and four Republican senators reached agreement on all the major elements of sweeping legislation to remake the nation's immigration laws, and expect to unveil the bill next week.
Don't get used to all this civility and forward motion, Reid warned.
"The hard work," he said, "starts now."
Also on HuffPost:
The House has 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats. Each party should pick up one more seat when two vacancies are filled. Going into the election, the GOP edge was 242-193. Senate Democrats will have a caucus of 55, including two independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Republicans have 45. That's a pickup of two seats for Democrats. <em>(Text <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130103/us-new-congress-glance/">via the Associated Press</a>)</em>
The House will have 79 women, including 60 Democrats. At the end of the last session, there were 50 Democratic women and 24 Republican women. The new Senate will have 20 women members, an increase of three. That consists of 16 Democrats and four Republicans. The last Senate had 12 Democratic women and five Republicans. (Text <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130103/us-new-congress-glance/">via the Associated Press</a>)
With two vacancies to be filled, the House has 82 freshmen; 47 Democrats and 35 Republicans. As of the end of the last session, 87 of 103 freshmen were Republicans. The Senate will include 14 new faces, with nine Democrats and the independent King. Five are women. New senators include Brian Schatz, who was sworn in on Dec. 27 to fill the seat of the late Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye. (Text <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130103/us-new-congress-glance/">via the Associated Press</a>) <em>(Pictured at left: Incoming House freshmen of the 113th Congress pose for a group photo on the East steps of the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012. AP Photo/Susan Walsh)</em>
The House will have 40 African-Americans, all Democrats. The number of Democrats is unchanged, although two Republicans will be gone: Allen West, R-Fla., lost his re-election bid, and Tim Scott, R-S.C., was appointed to fill the Senate seat of Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who is retiring. Scott will be the first black lawmaker in the Senate since Roland Burris, who retired in 2010 after filling the Illinois Senate seat of Barack Obama for almost two years. (Text <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130103/us-new-congress-glance/">via the Associated Press</a>) <em>(Pictured at left: Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who was appointed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to replace outgoing Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., walks out of the Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012. AP Photo/Susan Walsh)</em>
The new House will have 33 Hispanics, with 25 Democrats and eight Republicans. That's up slightly from last year. The Senate will have three Hispanics: Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Republican Marco Rubio of Florida and Republican freshman Ted Cruz of Texas. (Text <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130103/us-new-congress-glance/">via the Associated Press</a>) <em>(Pictured at left: Rep.-elect Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, speaks with members of the media after a news conference with newly elected Democratic House members on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)</em>
The new House will have nine Asian Americans, all Democrats. There are two American Indians: Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Ben Lujan, D-N.M. (Text <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130103/us-new-congress-glance/">via the Associated Press</a>) <em>(Pictured at left: Sen.-elect, current Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and her husband, Leighton Oshima ride the Senate Subway on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)</em>
According to CQ Roll Call newspaper, the average age of House members in the 113th Congress is 57; the average age of senators is 62. It estimates that the House will include some 277 Protestants and Catholics, 22 Jews, two Muslims and two Buddhists. The Senate will have 80 Protestants and Catholics and 10 Jews. The House will have its first Hindu, Rep.Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii. Senate freshman Mazie Hirono, also of Hawaii, will be the Senate's only Buddhist and its first Asian American woman. Also for the first time, white men will be a minority among House Democrats. (Text <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130103/us-new-congress-glance/">via the Associated Press</a>) <em>Pictured at left: Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii is seen on stage during a news conference with newly elected Democratic House members, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)</em>