The unexpected flare-up of partisan rancor over a minor line-item in the federal budget this week left lawmakers feeling increasingly gloomy about their ability to address issues of greater consequence, from the stubbornly high jobless rate to the soaring national debt.
“It’s a lot of energy wasted for nothing,” Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said Friday as the Senate rejected a House-passed bill to fund the government for the next few weeks. “If we can’t do this, how do we do the heavy lifting?”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) spoke about the Senate's spending bill, which he says will avert a government shutdown and fund disaster relief if passed. (Sept. 23)
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Congress left town for the weekend without resolving the latest spat over spending, an almost accidental dispute that set the parties bickering over $1.6 billion in budget cuts — an amount that equals just 0.04 percent of the federal budget. As a result, Washington once again finds itself a week away from a potential government shutdown, a possibility that was supposed to have been averted as part of last month’s deal to end an epic battle over the federal debt ceiling.
That agreement was still largely intact Friday. But Democrats decided to pick a fight over a side issue: an insistence by the GOP to pay for more disaster relief funding by cutting a popular auto-industry loan program. Republicans refused to back down.
Outside analysts joined lawmakers in voicing despair about the prospect that such a bitterly divided legislature would be able to agree on a new jobs bill or another big round of deficit reduction, even as the global economy teeters toward fresh trouble.
“You have to wonder what comes out of the supercommittee that passes both houses of the Congress — and that’s a whole lot more complicated than keeping the government open for another few weeks,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), referring to the special panel created during the debt-limit debate to slice an additional $1.5 trillion from future government borrowing.
Blunt said he has long believed that “the country is essentially in almost a holding pattern” until November 2012, when voters will have to decide what direction they want government policy to take. Until then, he said, “I’m not overwhelmingly optimistic” that Congress will be able to get much done.
The latest fracas appears to have snuffed out a fragile sense of comity that blossomed in Congress in the wake of the debt-limit debacle. Polls showed that voters were appalled by what they viewed as a naked display of political brinksmanship that risked destabilizing the U.S. economy.
In a memo circulated widely on Capitol Hill, GOP pollster Bill McInturff warned that the debt-limit debate had “shattered confidence in our political system and everyone involved.” Voters lost faith in the ability of both President Obama and congressional Republicans to “make the right decisions about the economy,” the memo said. But congressional Republicans had taken the bigger hit, it added, with 81 percent of those surveyed saying they had little or no confidence in the judgment of the GOP.
Anxious about Congress’ plunging approval ratings and the real-world market reaction to August’s tumult, lawmakers sought to repair the damage when they returned to work at the beginning of September.