Monday, July 2, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Washington’s political divide has the country at a standstill.
“And this election is your chance to break that stalemate,” President Barack Obama has been telling potential voters on the campaign trail.
Except, is it?
Obama’s newest campaign refrain strikes at the heart of the country’s frustration, most of it directed toward Congress, with how political bickering has replaced governing.
But in the past week or so that Obama has been building up this “break the stalemate” refrain, walls in Congress have been coming down. In fact, the Senate’s been such a lovefest lately that it’s almost disconcerting.
For instance, consider that Democratic and Republican party leaders lauded lawmakers last week for their work on the farm bill.
“Everyone can feel we’re accomplishing something,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. “We’re trying to work together for the good of the country.”
“The Senate ... is sort of getting back to operating the way the Senate traditionally has,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell added. “I think the way we’ve handled the farm bill and other measures ... has been a very important step in the right direction.”
This is stalemate?
The Senate is where stalemate is supposed to reign supreme, thanks to a long-standing filibuster tradition that gives the minority power to stymie the will of the majority.
That’s important to remember in times of both cacophonous strife and relative Kumbaya-singing.
“Whereas a lot of people blame the president for everything that doesn’t get done, 95 percent of the responsibility lies with Congress,” said Mark Peplowski, professor of political science at the College of Southern Nevada. “The president has no power but what Congress gives him ... so whoever is elected president, the stalemate will not fully end until Congress moves back to the middle from the polar ends.”
Recently the Senate has been trending in that direction. Sure, it hasn’t passed a budget. But it has managed to pass a farm bill, a transportation bill, a student loan interest rate freeze, a small jobs bill, an FDA drug bill and a Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, all in the past few weeks.
Of course, just two of those measures passed the entire Congress — but was ever it a squeaker. (The House and Senate passed a joint transportation and student loans bill on Friday, just 24 hours before the drop-dead deadline Saturday.)
When it comes to the House-Senate divide, however, it seems the old script of stalemate is still very much driving the state of play.
“We could actually become functional again,” said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “But we need leadership in the Legislature — in both houses — that will stand up to this gridlock ... and it is an election year.”
If a new era of cooperation has commenced in Congress, the memo hasn’t filtered out to the public yet: Last week’s congressional approval ratings were hovering at an improved, but still pretty abysmal, 22 percent.
So is Obama right? Is this election the country’s best hope to break years of congressional stalemate?
Math would suggest no.
“We didn’t cause this problem overnight, and we’re not going to fix it overnight,” Peplowski said. “There’s no simple answer, because the problem has been building and growing over 50 years.”
Plus, the poll numbers don’t play out. Assuming Congress-at-large is still too caught up in politics, November can only break through gridlock if one side or the other stages an overwhelming win, taking the White House, House of Representatives and a supermajority in the Senate. Neither side is poised for that.
There is an alternative: A wave of centrism. But while Obama may try to whet America’s post-partisan appetite, the voters might not bite.
“The problem voters have is that they just don’t have alternatives to vote for,” Lokken said. “We just don’t see ’em. So we’re facing business as usual right now, unless it’s more of an earthquake election than we’re anticipating.”