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Issa and Cummings praise each other: Return of comity or moment of calm?

In a moment of bipartisan cordiality during Obamacare hearings, the GOP chairman and ranking Democrat of the House Oversight Committee – who have been at odds – offered kind words. No one expects choruses of 'Kumbaya' in 2015, but with Washington mired in gridlock even small signs matter.

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Ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, (D) of Maryland (l.) and Chairman Darrell Issa, (R) of California, chat during a hearing at the House Oversight and Government Reform Tuesday.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

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Solar rays didn’t break through storm clouds to cast a magical light over the Capital dome Tuesday, but something more mundanely positive did happen in Congress: Two leaders who have been at odds engaged in a show of mutual praise and respect.

Elijah Cummings, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, paused during a hearing on Obamacare to tell Committee Chairman Darrell Issa that “you have made me a better person in so many, many ways,” adding accolades for the Republican’s expertise and dedication.

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Later in the hearing, Representative Issa waxed lyrical about Representative Cummings’ hard work and referred to him as “my friend.”

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The words didn’t pass between just any Republican and any Democrat. These were the leading members of a House committee tasked with a watchdog role that can make it a hotbed of maneuvering for partisan advantage. And these were two men who at times have been sharply at odds – encapsulated back in March when Issa abruptly shut down a hearing on the IRS after getting in a shouting match with Cummings over whether the Maryland Democrat was raising a valid question.

The peacemaking on display Tuesday is a reminder that even in time of high partisanship and rivalry, lawmakers in Congress are also human beings with capacities for forgiveness, bridge-building, and even affection toward members in the other political camp.

Don’t expect a renewed era of bipartisan comity to emerge all of a sudden come 2015. What happened at this one hearing isn’t a sign that Issa and Cummings no longer have disagreements, let alone that the two parties are ready to join in a chorus of “Kumbaya.”

“To get a real sense of whether bipartisanship stands a chance what matters most are the roll call votes, the back room interaction, and what they say in front of the media on stations like Fox or MSNBC,” Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer says in an e-mail interview.

Measured in those ways, he says, right now the broad climate in Congress shows “not much evidence of any change.”

It’s worth noting, for example, that partisan differences were on pretty full display during the Tuesday’s hearing. As Democrats defended President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Republicans sought to raise doubts about how the law has performed for Americans – and especially whether public comments by one of the law’s so-called architects suggest that Democrats were willfully secretive in passing the controversial law.

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Jonathan Gruber, an MIT scholar who advised Democrats as the law was being hatched, faced harsh questioning at the hearing about his prior statements implying that a lack of transparency played a crucial role in getting the law passed.

It’s also noteworthy that the kind words by Cummings and Issa toward each other come at the end of congressional session, with the committee gavel about to pass to a new Republican in the chair.

“One of the precepts of Solon the Lawgiver was, ‘Of the dead say nothing but good,’ " says Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist, via e-mail.

The “more significant life signs” for bipartisanship, he says, have been progress on substantive matters that the Democratic Senate and Republican House are trying to resolve during the post-election endgame of the current Congress. Professor Baker cites progress toward a bill to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year, and  efforts between Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) and House Speaker John Boehner (R) to reach an accord renewing some expired tax breaks.​

Those are baby steps.

And they may not lead very far in the near term.

For instance, President Obama appeared to turn a cold shoulder last week toward the emerging plans to extend tax breaks for a year. White House spokesman Josh Earnest described the proposals as showering “significant tax benefits on well-connected corporations without providing much relief to working people in this country.”

Still, when Washington is mired in gridlock, you have to start somewhere. That’s why seemingly small things like the Issa-Cummings interchange are worth keeping an eye on.

Cummings cited Issa’s passion for the issues investigated by the committee, saying, “I want to thank you for taking the time to understand these issues in a very, very meaningful way.”

Cummings also flagged their joint work on legislation to enhance the transparency of federal spending data as “such a positive note for bipartisanship. It shows what we can do when we work together.”

At the end of the long hearing, Issa took an opportunity to praise the ranking Democrat.

“I’ve learned a great deal” working with Cummings, the California Republican said. He added a note of apparent contrition. “I will just say one thing in closing to my friend. I would do things differently with what I now know. But I would hope that anyone who sits in this chair would never do less than I have done, because it is our watch, it is our time. And I think you and I have worked hard to try to make sure this committee did as much as it could and my only regret is that we didn’t do more.”

Perfect harmony among members of Congress? Not yet, but their emotional palette includes more than partisan rancor.