E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion writer June 12, 2011

Welcome to the miserable world of no-way-out politics.

The economy needs another jolt, but Congress is in gridlock. Democrats, or most of them, realize that their political futures and the well-being of millions of households hang on whether unemployment can be brought down. Yet Republicans have the capacity to block even the smallest steps forward.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” View Archive

Here’s what the Democrats’ agony looks like from the inside. Last Thursday, Senate Democrats devoted their weekly policy lunch to a simple question: What proposals to spur job-creation have any chance of passing Congress, given Republican control of the House and the effective veto power the GOP has in a Senate where a simple majority no longer rules?

The agenda was organized by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York. He doesn’t need a pollster to tell him that jobs are his party’s make-or-break issue.

“The voters gave us two mandates in 2010, not one,” he said in an interview. “They told us we should reduce the deficit and get rid of wasteful spending. We ignore that at our peril. But they also told us to create jobs, grow the economy and help the middle class stretch their paychecks.” Washington, Schumer says, is ignoring the second instruction.

The senators concluded that the only stimulative measures with any chance of getting Republican votes involve tax cuts. That’s why you’re hearing a lot of talk about extending the payroll tax cut another year, and perhaps extending it to the part of the tax that employers pay.

Congress could also marry help for manufacturing with environmental protection by renewing and expanding a tax credit to promote more energy-efficient production, a proposal being pushed by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Similarly, Schumer would like to see more tax breaks for energy efficiency in homes and offices.

And, yes, hope springs eternal for a public works bill through the renewal of the Surface Transportation Act, a measure scores of Republicans have always supported, and the creation of an infrastructure bank. The bank would bring private as well as government money to public works projects and make them less subject to political earmarking.

The bank is an idea Republicans should love, but this assumes a more rational political world than the one we now live in.

For the moment, Republicans have no interest in moving the nation’s debate toward investments in job creation because they gain twice over from keeping Washington mired in discussions on the deficit. It’s a brute fact that Republicans benefit if the economy stays sluggish. And despite their role in ballooning the deficit during the Bush years, they will always outbid Democrats on spending cuts.

So is there any way out for those looking to Washington? The recent disappointing jobs numbers have at least had the salutary effect of reminding Democrats that they cannot agree to anything that further slows the recovery. “The first principle has to be ‘do no harm,’ ” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a key House Democratic negotiator in the deficit talks. “There is a danger of making things worse if you adopt very deep cuts in the short term.”

And Schumer, a congenital if tough-minded optimist, believes that certain ideas will have such broad appeal that Republicans will eventually go along.

But there is another player in all this. The broad feeling among congressional Democrats — a sentiment that moves toward impatience when it’s expressed off the record — is that President Obama needs to engineer a turn in the national conversation. Brown, for example, strongly defends Obama’s auto rescue and is happy the president is talking more about manufacturing lately. Yet he adds: “The president has got to get this discussion more on jobs and less on the budget.”

Obama believes and says in speeches, most recently last week at Northern Virginia Community College, that government has a major role to play in expanding opportunity. At the moment, though, the overwhelming message coming out of the nation’s capital (and one that defies economic logic) is that cutting spending is the only thing government can do to improve the economy.

Yes, we need a budget deal, and my hunch is we’ll get one. But all the spending cuts in the world will do Obama no good if unemployment next year is anywhere close to where it is now. Changing the message and the policies coming out of Washington is urgent. A deficit deal that ignores the unemployed will flunk the dual test the voters set up in 2010.

ejdionne@washpost.com