Huh? US lawmakers suddenly getting along
Cherry blossoms aren't the only things in bloom in the US capital these days. Progress and bipartisanship are, if not in full flower, at least pushing through cracks in longstanding political gridlock.
By most accounts, the recent accomplishments on Capitol Hill have been anything but ordinary, as lawmakers appear eager to erase their reputation as the "do-nothing Congress."
Last month, they agreed on how to fund government through 2013. The Senate passed a budget for the first time in four years, President Barack Obama broke bread twice in the past month with Republican rivals and the United States could see transformative new immigration reform unveiled next week.
After Obama released his 2014 budget blueprint, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, last year's failed Republican vice presidential nominee, said Obama's effort to address the cost of entitlements gives him a "glimmer of hope" that a fiscal deal is possible.
The 100-member Senate, known in recent years more for its snail's pace and the political loggerheads of its members than for rushing through legislation, has been acutely active.
This week, the chamber confirmed the 10th judicial nomination of Obama's second term, while the president's recent cabinet nominees have been getting the nod as well.
And in a startling development, the Senate voted 68-31 Thursday to begin debate on the most significant gun legislation in nearly two decades, after a Democrat and Republican put aside their differences and forged a deal on background checks.
"Is the Senate finally getting to work? The answer is yes," Republican Johnny Isakson told AFP after the vote.
"We've put off doing a lot of things we needed to do for far too long, and a lot of people have finally realized it."
Some say it was less of a eureka moment and more of a calculated effort, particularly by Republicans, to ingratiate themselves to voters.
"I think some of our Republican colleagues have learned in the 2012 election that blocking everything and confrontation is not a path to political success," said Senator Chuck Schumer, a veteran Democrat.
"But most of all, there's a desire of both Democrats and Republicans to actually legislate and do some good things."
Observers were casting a cautious eye.
"Is it leadership or pragmatism? It's probably a bit of both," mused Dick Keil of Purple Strategies, which works on messaging for Democrats and Republicans.
For months, Republicans have been huddling as they mull the party's future, and Keil said many in the party concluded they would "have to break from the past and make tough choices to show they could appeal to a broader swathe of the electorate."
They can do that, he said, through their actions on the two key issues facing the Senate today: immigration and guns.
A bipartisan "Gang of Eight," including potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, is on the cusp of unveiling historic immigration reform.
Doing so would go far to show the country's Hispanics that the Democratic Party does not have a lock on the minority vote.
Gun legislation is seen as toxic by many Republican lawmakers, but after the December school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the appearance of obstructing every effort by Obama and Democrats to reduce gun violence could be overwhelmingly rejected by voters at the polls.
Republican Senator Pat Toomey said new gun safety legislation was inevitable. So he partnered with a Democrat, Joe Manchin, to craft the strongest background check compromise he could.
"This is the right thing to do," said Toomey.
But like the pink petals on Washington's cherry blossom trees, the cross-party political warmth is not likely to last.
With the cyclical nature of American politics, rest assured that the claws and daggers will be out and on display come summer, when the fiscal battle over the US borrowing limit and spending policy will reach a fever pitch.
Still, Isakson said he hopes the current whiff of bipartisanship "has legs."
"We're going to be working on deficit, debt and entitlement reform," he said. "It's going to be a busy summer."