WASHINGTON — A key senator walks away from bipartisan budget talks. Congressional Republicans vote to end Medicare in its current form. Democrats spend nearly two weeks pushing to end oil company tax breaks, knowing their effort will fail.
Is Congress broken? Is it being held hostage by political extremes and therefore unable to reach agreement on anything? Is the legislative branch of government undergoing a historic change?
The evidence is inconclusive. Despite the stalemates, in recent months lawmakers have cut deals on tax reductions, a historic nuclear arms treaty and a budget-cutting plan that prevented a government shutdown.
Yet changes in the political culture are clearly adding great pressure, triggered by two interdependent forces: an inescapable news media and increasingly polarized views. Together they challenge congressional leaders' ability to broker the compromise essential to successful democratic government.
"Can you imagine writing the Constitution in today's environment?" asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. " 'Don't give in, Ben. Don't compromise, Tom.' You'd be met right outside Independence Hall by cable TV, (conservative commentator) Bill O'Reilly and (liberal) Rachel Maddow, and they're doing play-by-play.
"In today's world it's very hard for bipartisan agreements to be formed because those who don't like what you're trying to do are able to generate a lot of pushback early on. So this 24-hour news cycle makes it very, very difficult — but not impossible."
Gridlock could have serious consequences soon. The government reached its $14.3 trillion debt limit Monday, and its borrowing authority is expected to last only until Aug. 2, unless Congress raises it. Lawmakers also have until Sept. 30 to agree to a federal budget for fiscal 2012, which begins the next day.
So far there's been little movement on either front. The Republican-led House of Representatives passed a budget blueprint last month that would drastically revamp Medicare and make deep cuts in popular social programs. The Democratic-dominated Senate is expected to reject the plan next week.
Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden has led bipartisan talks toward a deal to raise the debt limit since May 5 behind closed doors. No deal yet.
And another once-promising effort toward a bipartisan budget deal is fading.
The Senate's "Gang of Six" — three Democrats and three Republicans — took a hit Tuesday when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., pulled out because of disputes with Democrats over Medicare.
His departure triggered fears anew that Congress is doomed to endless gridlock on the big challenges of our time, from crushing debt to 12 million illegal immigrants to global warming.
Yet experts aren't sure; after all, the nation has survived since the late 18th century largely by compromising on virtually everything, with the glaring exception of the pre-Civil War era. But analysts and lawmakers do agree that Congress is changing in historic ways.
Congress is particularly vulnerable to the 24/7 media world, because it's Washington's most open political institution. The Capitol and its offices are about the only federal buildings where reporters can generally roam free, walk up to elected officials and talk to them.
As a result, it's become a popular haven for bloggers, Tweeters and growing legions of reporters under pressure to feed the Internet and the ever-voracious media world. That means there's "no longer pause and effect," said Charles Bierbauer, the dean of the University of South Carolina journalism school and a former CNN anchor.
Nuances are not welcome in this media world, as members of Congress are wary of uttering a sentence that can instantly go viral and embarrass them. Witness the uproar this week over Newt Gingrich's single critical comment on the House GOP Medicare plan; some analysts think the conservative blowback at Gingrich could end his nascent presidential campaign.
"It's (information) no longer mediated," Bierbauer said. "Now you've provoked the guy on the other side of the aisle and you've gotten into turf battles which more likely would have been resolved in the cloak room in the good old days, rather than on Facebook. That's a larger problem than media itself."
A related part of the problem is the growing clout of ideologically inflexible political groups, who often react to any out-of-line utterances by politicians with quick and vicious outrage.
As a result, "there's less space for politicians to compromise and not have repercussions from it," said Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
Foremost this year is the grass-roots tea party conservative movement, which takes credit for helping to elect dozens of Republicans to Congress last year. Many of its activists have been critical of the April spending-cut compromise that kept the government running.
Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips explained why. "We've been burned before," he said. "The reason the tea party is so against compromise is it seems our side is the one doing the compromise."
Tripp Baird, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former top aide to former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, said the GOP was coming under enormous pressure.
"Members want a clear win," he said. "Unless they can paint (something) as a clear win, they're not going to give in easily."
The other side applies similar pressure on Democrats.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus proposes a "people's budget" with higher taxes on the wealthy. The Campaign for America's Future, a liberal advocacy group, presses other Democrats to take that stand rather than seek more-conservative compromises.
"In back rooms at the White House and on Capitol Hill, the group led by Vice President Biden and the Gang of Six are working on deficit reduction packages that will have a dramatic impact on American lives. Yet none of the authors of the People's Budget are currently part of the White House-led bipartisan budget negotiations," the group said in a statement. "Progressive views must be represented in the room where any budget agreement will be reached," Roger Hickey, the group's co-director, insisted in a statement.
For all the pressures of the modern era however, partisan gridlock is hardly new, and history shows that Congress' best shot at compromise comes near a deadline. December's agreement to extend the Bush-era tax cuts came just weeks before they were about to expire. Last month's budget-cutting deal was announced about 90 minutes before the government was to run out of money.
Brinksmanship is standard practice in Washington. The turmoil that most resembles the current situation was evident in 1995-96. Republicans won majorities of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years and they vowed to change how government was run and funded.
At first they were as uncompromising as today's tea partiers. They faced Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, and a Senate where the Democratic minority was strong enough to block any GOP juggernaut. By late 1995, a partisan stalemate over the budget led to two extended government shutdowns.
Public outrage at that helped persuade both sides to compromise, and Clinton and the Republicans compromised again three times in the summer of 1996, on overhauling welfare, raising the minimum wage and making pensions portable. Both sides were trying to build a record of achievement before the November elections.
This year's next deadline on budget questions is Aug. 2, when the government no longer will be able to borrow money. Despite all the fiery rhetoric of late, there are small signs that deadline pressure again could force agreement.
When President Barack Obama announced the Biden-led talks last month, GOP leaders scoffed. But after a meeting May 12 with Obama, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was more agreeable.
"Candidly, I was a little skeptical as to whether this meeting was worth having, but I actually think it was a very good meeting," he said. "We didn't have a big food fight in there over the things that we typically, you know, fight over in an election. I thought it was really helpful."
It's a start, though Graham knows it won't be easy.
"My statement to my colleagues is, even if people are loud, that doesn't mean they're the majority. So if you're doing things that make sense, just trust the country to figure it out," he said. "In this environment of constant media scrutiny, it's very difficult."
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