Cokie and Steven Roberts

Sen. Jon Kyl has done something very rare in Washington today. Compromise.

Last fall, the Arizona Republican was re-elected on a tough anti-immigration platform. But when Democrats took control of Congress his calculation shifted. "I had a choice," he told The New York Times. "Do I sit on the sidelines and say, 'that's a bad bill?' Or do I get in the fight and try to shape it as best I could?"

The bill Kyl helped write (with liberals like Ted Kennedy) has something for everyone to like and hate. Twelve million illegal aliens already here would get a shot at citizenship, but the process would be very long and arduous. And it wouldn't even begin until many costly moves to reinforce the border were in place.

Still, Kyl's role has stirred up a storm of scorn from conservatives back home. "He has betrayed the people who voted for him," thundered state legislator Russell Pearce. "It's absolutely a sellout of America." And the senator has acknowledged the abuse: "I have learned some new words from some of my constituents."

Well, we have our own word for Kyl. That word is "legislator." And we mean it as a compliment.

Legislators see a pressing problem and try to solve it. They work with others, including folks from the other party. And they understand that "compromise" is not a dirty word. In fact, it is the very essence of the legislative process.

But it's so easy to scream "sellout" and revel in purity and wash your hands of responsibility for actually getting something done. It's so easy to say "I have my principles" and equate accommodation with betrayal. It's so easy to play to the super-heated audience of interest groups, radio hosts and bloggers who enforce ideological conformity like an American Taliban. So easy and so wrong.

This is a very large and diverse country. Every one of the 535 members of Congress has his or her own principles. The only way government can work is for those lawmakers to reconcile principle with possibility, to understand that perfection should not be the enemy of progress.

President Bush, to his credit, has made reality the touchstone of his approach on immigration. "You can't kick them out," he said recently of the 12 million illegals: "That's just not real." And the president was right when he said the outcome of the debate hinges on this question: "Will members of Congress rise above politics?"

But Bush bears major responsibility for the climate that makes realism and reasonableness so unfashionable. During his time in office he has seldom risen "above politics" himself. As the president's own former strategist, Matt Dowd, has pointed out (with considerable dismay), Bush broke his promise to be "a uniter not a divider." Instead, he has governed the country by trying to polarize it along partisan and ideological lines.

His GOP allies were just as rigid when they ran Congress, excluding Democrats almost entirely from the legislative process. No wonder hard-liners like Russell Pearce think it's a criminal act to talk to Ted Kennedy.

The Democrats also bear responsibility for the decline of compromise, adamantly refusing over the last few years to cooperate with the White House in any way or help the president achieve any legislative victories.

And like the Republicans, they have their own thought police, preaching purity and denouncing any impulse at bipartisanship. Just listen to the screamers on the left, like, blasting Democrats in the Senate who bowed to political reality and voted to fund the troops in Iraq.

That's why the decisions by Kyl (and his negotiating partners like Kennedy) to "get in the fight" are so significant. Finally, a few folks in Washington are willing to put politics aside and take some heat and find common ground on an issue that simply won't go away.

We say this while strongly disagreeing with Kyl's substantive position on immigration. His influence has made the draft bill now before the Senate far harsher on illegal immigrants than we would prefer. Even though 62 per cent of those surveyed by The New York Times favor a process that enables these newcomers to gain legal status, the measure burdens them with hefty fines and lengthy delays. A guest worker program with no chance for citizenship is mean-spirited and impractical.

But at least Kyl and Kennedy are doing what they were elected to do: legislate. In the process, they are resurrecting the lost art of compromise.

Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at