The new normal in Congress: short-term fixes, unending political warfare

Posted Sept. 27, 2011, at 8:45 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Just as Congress appeared to have prevented a government shutdown, attention turned to how to avoid another one when the stopgap funding runs out in a matter of weeks.

Congress can’t seem to get off the showdown treadmill — an endless loop of one-upmanship that has helped build the toxic political environment dominating Washington.

Yes, a bipartisan deal was reached Monday night to fund the government for seven weeks and resolve a dispute over disaster aid, averting a federal shutdown at the end of the week. The GOP-led House is expected to unanimously approve a four-day measure on Thursday, with a second vote set for next week.

It’s but a temporary break from the political warfare that defines the new normal on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers know this endless cycle of tense standoffs is not what the public wants — polls show Americans want compromise. But the politicians can’t seem to help themselves.

The new House Republican majority has bucked the traditional way of governing in Washington. Its tea party-inspired members believe they have a mandate to change “business as usual.” And House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has shown he cannot always control their tendency to just say no. GOP leaders did not even want the battle over government spending, but it happened anyway.

Democrats, emboldened by the opportunity to portray House Republicans as captive to the extreme wing of their party, pushed the fight forward.

As a result, the months ahead are expected to be much like those that just passed: one game of brinkmanship after another.

If trench warfare can be waged over providing aid for disaster victims, typically an easy sell for both parties, what about the major issues? The “supercommittee” on deficit reduction is supposed to make recommendations before Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama’s jobs package is in the pipeline and another bill to fund the government is needed by Nov. 18.

All face steep hurdles.

“I’m dispirited to the point of deep pessimism — I don’t see anything on the horizon that’s going to make things much better,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University professor who has written extensively on Congress.

“What they’re doing collectively is degrading Congress in the eyes of the people,” he said. “You can always point to periods in the past that were really bad, but who wants to go back to the 1850s when Charles Sumner was caned on the floor in the Senate? What we have is a really toxic environment, and people want to avoid putting their head above the parapet for fear of getting shot.’ ‘

This latest fight was one Republican leaders wanted to avoid. Public opinion of Congress plummeted after the summer’s bruising debt-ceiling battle. Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia interrupted his GOP colleagues’ August recess with a thinly veiled warning against picking another fight so soon.

But Cantor’s memo apparently had little effect; Republicans returned to Washington ready for battle. Conservatives opposed the overall levels of government spending as too high; others rallied around Cantor’s insistence that additional aid for victims of Hurricane Irene and other disasters be paid for with spending cuts.

Democrats felt that went too far.

“I just think at some point, you’ve got to stop this,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles.

The themes that drive the tension remain and will likely carry over into the days ahead.

A first test will come Thursday, when the House tries to pass the stopgap spending bill to fund the government on a procedural voice vote, which requires unanimous approval. A single objection could derail that effort, forcing all lawmakers to return to Washington from their Rosh Hashanah recess.

The stopgap measure, if approved, funds the government until Tuesday. At that time, the full House is expected to vote on the broader agreement to fund it through Nov. 18.

This is what Congress has come to: funding government a few days at a time.

“Disgusting,” is how Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., described the gridlock.

Those watching do not see an easy exit from the treadmill.

“Given the political environment and dynamics, the outlook is grim,” said Mark McKinnon, a longtime GOP strategist and co-founder of No Labels, a nonpartisan budget advocacy group. “I think there is going to have to be some significant disruption to the system for things to change.”

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