If Congress fought over disaster funding, what won’t it fight over?

Posted Sept. 28, 2011, at 4:30 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Politicians in both parties have been busy patting themselves on the back for having averted yet another government shutdown after striking a deal Monday on disaster funding. But the fact that there was a dispute at all is instructive for what it tells us about Congress, comity and the 2012 elections.

That Congress was willing to even raise the specter of a government shutdown on Friday if a deal wasn’t reached on the disaster money, so soon after a fight over the debt ceiling that proved politically disastrous for both parties, tells us two important things.

First, the two parties in Congress don’t agree on much of anything. It’s hard to see the funding fight as anything but a debate on principle, given the paltry amount of money at stake, a mere $2.6 billion.

What 2011 has proved is that the two parties carry widely divergent views about nearly every issue, but especially about the right way to turn around the nation’s struggling economy.

Republicans see cutting spending and tackling entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare as the right path, and anything involving raising taxes as a nonstarter. Democrats advocate a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, with any major changes to entitlement programs regarded as anathema.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, described the chasm after his speech at the Economic Club of Washington this month.

“While we have a good relationship, sometimes the conversations that we have would be like two groups of people from two different planets who barely understand each other,” Boehner said of President Barack Obama and Democrats. “And I don’t mean it in a derogatory way, but there’s a reason why you’d have two major political parties with big disagreements.”

Second, both parties are waiting until the 2012 election for a sign from voters.

In 2008, voters seemed to give Obama a clear mandate when he won 53 percent of the national vote and 365 electoral votes, a massive victory by the near 50-50 standards of the past decade. But, two years later, voters handed Obama and his party a major setback, giving Republicans control of the House and delivering sweeping victories to the GOP at the state and local levels.

One stat that tells you everything you need to know about the electorate’s confusion is this: In the 2006 midterm elections, independents went for Democratic House candidates by 18 points, and four years later, they went for Republicans by 19 points.

Almost year into divided government, it’s still not clear what the public wants.

A new CNN-ORC International poll showed 56 percent of Americans saying that Republican policies will move the country in the wrong direction, and 53 percent saying the same of the policies advocated by Democrats.

So, do voters want more government? Less? The truth is that politicians just don’t know the answer. And they are all waiting until the 2012 election for a final, or at least newer, verdict.

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