As the August recess approaches, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill seem eager to draw sharp distinctions between the parties, making compromise elusive.
Almost all members of Congress favor some kind of tax cut. Almost all members of Congress support new protections for managed-care patients. Almost all members of Congress want to help seniors buy prescription drugs. And with budget officials predicting unprecedented surpluses, Congress finally has extra money to play with.
Members are at war over specifics: how big a tax cut, how broad the restrictions on HMOs, how to provide a new prescription drug benefit. And while the issues may seem ripe for bipartisan compromise, efforts to split the differences have gone nowhere so far.
It's an odd formula for gridlock.
On tax cuts, for example, most Republicans united last week behind a $792 billion reduction, declaring that anything less amounted to a big-government insult to the American people. Most Democrats refused to budge from $300 billion, describing anything higher as a vicious assault on Medicare, Social Security and fiscal sanity. A small bipartisan group of senators proposed to meet halfway at $500 billion, but their plan promptly imploded.
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), one of the bipartisan co-sponsors of the compromise tax plan, says he has never seen less willingness to make concessions in his 27 years on Capitol Hill.
"The parties have increasingly taken the position that it's my way or no way -- so what we end up with is no way," Breaux said. "It's all about message. . . . When people are asked, they say they want us to work together and get things done. But we don't."
Members agree that an odd confluence of factors -- heightened partisanship in the wake of the rancorous impeachment battle, the sky-high stakes of the 2000 election, the razor-thin GOP majority in the House, an absence of urgency in a time of peace and prosperity -- have sharpened the battle lines this year.
Of course, partisan warfare is nothing new on the Hill, and bipartisan deals often have materialized out of stalemates in the past.
Ever since a bitter partisan deadlock shut down the government in 1995, the two parties have come together on some major legislation every year. In 1996, President Clinton bowed to Republicans and signed a strict welfare overhaul, after vetoing two even stricter versions. In 1997, there was a massive bipartisan balanced-budget deal, and in 1998, the GOP-controlled Congress enacted a major spending package that funded many of Clinton's domestic priorities.
So far this year, nothing like that has happened. Democrats blame Republican extremists. Republicans blame Democratic obstructionists. Democrats denounce the "do-nothing Congress." Republicans denounce the "do-nothing Democrats." And both Republicans and Democrats are eager to emphasize the differences between the parties as the 2000 elections approach, a strategy that is easier to achieve in times of gridlock than in times of grand bipartisan compromise.
This phenomenon is especially pronounced in the House, where Republicans hold a minuscule five-member advantage, and both sides are placing a premium on party discipline. On managed care, for example, Democrats have united behind a Patients' Bill of Rights, refusing en masse to support the narrower measures pushed by GOP leaders. Now that a few Republican doctors in the House have bucked their leaders on the issue, HMO reform has stalled. There was a similar breakdown in the House over gun control, when Democrats refused to accept extremely mild restrictions after stricter ones were defeated; the result so far has been no restrictions.
Democratic leaders say gridlock is not their objective: They'd rather enact their agenda. But they also say that they are looking forward to presenting that agenda to voters, and that Republican inaction may help them take over the House and enact it themselves in 2001. And Clinton's zeal for compromise may be tempered by the hope that sharp differences over poll-tested issues such as Medicare, patient protections and gun control will help Vice President Gore succeed him and elect Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Senate, Democrats say.
"A very clear contrast is emerging between the two parties, and we welcome that," said Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), chairman of the Democratic caucus. "We think the Republicans are totally out of sync with voters -- on taxes, patients' rights, you name it. So this is helpful."
On taxes, especially, many Republicans are similarly pleased that Clinton has vowed to veto their massive reductions. Now that welfare reform is done and crime rates are plunging, Republicans believe that taxes are the best vehicle to differentiate themselves from Democrats. During the floor debate last week, they constantly repeated their mantra: We believe your money belongs to you. Democrats believe it belongs to the government.
"The battle lines have been drawn, and we're really excited about that," said Rep. J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.), a member of the House GOP's communications task force. "We've got a really simple message, and we think it's going to resonate at home."
To some moderates, one of the major forces preventing compromise on Capitol Hill is the tendency of both parties to cater to their ideological and financial bases: labor unions and other liberal groups for Democrats, business lobbies and conservative religious groups for Republicans. At times, the president has overcome those pressures by weighing in on the side of compromise, but he has shown no inclination to do so on taxes, Medicare or managed care.
"The parties pay attention to their activist wings, and the activist wings of both parties don't share the point of view of the majority of people in the country," Breaux said. Nor do they have any interest in compromise with each other, he added.
Finally, with the government divided between a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, many lawmakers see little downside to political posturing that results in no legislation.
"People have a hard time figuring who's in charge," so they don't know who to blame, said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), who worked with Breaux on the bipartisan tax plan. "People may just throw up their hands and not even bother to vote."
And even that scenario assumes that voters are paying attention to the partisan machinations in Congress. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), another leading supporter of the unsuccessful tax compromise, believes that assumption makes little sense now that the economy is humming and once-pressing issues like welfare, crime and the deficit are off the table.
"No one's paying any attention," Kerrey said. "The top programs on cable are world wrestling, dog shows, Rug Rats. We're way down the food chain here."
For now, at least, few members of Congress seem optimistic about the prospects of a "Grand Compromise," an overarching budget deal that would include tax cuts, a Medicare prescription drug benefit, some debt reduction and a spending blueprint for the next year. Some are talking darkly about a potential "train wreck," complaining that leaders of both parties would rather preserve political issues than pass laws.
Then again, with the economy booming and the surplus mounting, there are actual public policy arguments for inaction as well. Some budget analysts warn that if revenue projections fall short, a tax cut or a new drug benefit could bring back federal deficits. On the other hand, if Congress fails to pass anything, any surpluses will be used to retire the national debt.
"There are times when gridlock may be the best outcome," said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "This may be one of them."