Shutdown averted, but deep differences linger
WASHINGTON It's the third time this year a government budget crisis has been averted just in the nick of time. And the public seems plain fed up with the nonstop partisanship that led to the nerve-racking close calls.
Rising public disgust turns up in poll after poll showing Congress' approval ratings have sunk far lower than those of President Barack Obama, whose own numbers have been weighed down by the teetering economy and dour employment numbers.
Yet the political grandstanding is likely to continue, even grow.
Because at the heart of every major standoff this year is a deep philosophical disagreement between the parties on the size and role of government. It encompasses sharp disagreements on spending cuts and taxes, and on whether deficit reduction or more spending to prod a flailing recovery is a higher priority. And these are arguments sure to reverberate more loudly as the presidential election nears.
"I think this thing continues until next November's election," said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. "With the campaign started, it's very hard to stop it."
As to the current state of political polarization, Thurber said: "There are very few people in the middle who are moderate and who can bring about compromises. And that creates an environment where you have this crisis approach to even fairly small issues."
Some 82 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job, according to a Gallup poll released this week. It also shows record or near-record criticism of elected officials in general, government handling of domestic problems, the scope of government power and government waste of money.
The poll results may reflect the shared political power arrangement, with Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate and Republicans controlling the House. "Partisans on both sides can thus find fault with government without necessarily blaming their own party," said Lydia Saad, senior Gallup poll editor.
A budget deadlock that raised the risk of a government shutdown this weekend was apparently broken as the Senate approved a short-term measure to fund the government through Nov. 18, and the House was expected to follow suit.
But it will only get harder from now on.
The most recent fight had been over a relatively small amount of emergency disaster aid money and whether it should be offset — as tea-party influenced House Republicans want — by corresponding cuts in other programs. In November, the entire budget for the budget year getting under way Oct. 1 will be under review. The stakes will be huge.
Also, the budget talks seem certain to be complicated by the shape of any proposal put on the table by a 12-member bipartisan supercommittee, which faces a Nov. 23 deadline for coming up with $1.5 trillion in deficit-reduction measures to take effect in 2013.
Both sides have dug in their heels. Obama's speeches have taken on more partisan, combative tones in recent weeks. And he has proposed a jobs stimulus program that would be paid for, in part, by raising taxes on the wealthy.
Obama includes the whole GOP field of presidential aspirants in addition to directly criticizing GOP congressional leaders. "I urge all of you to watch some of these Republican debates. It's a different vision about who we are, who we stand for," he said earlier this week during a fundraising tour of Western states.
At the same time, House Speaker John Boehner has flatly declared tax increases "off the table."
Members of Congress have seen their standing tumble in the eyes of the public after their squabbling brought the government to near calamity three times since April.
Then, Boehner and Obama reached a budget deal little more than an hour before a government shutdown was to begin. On Aug. 2, Congress agreed to legislation raising the government's debt ceiling — its borrowing authority — just hours before Treasury was to run out of cash to pay all its bills, raising the risk of default.
The government continued to operate, but the squabbling cost the U.S. a downgrade in its credit rating anyway from Standard & Poor's a few days later.
The rating service removed for the first time the triple-A rating the U.S. had held for 70 years. Among other things, it blamed the weakened "effectiveness, stability and predictability" of U.S. policymaking and political institutions at a time of rising economic challenges.
In an Associated Press-GFK poll last month, some 53 percent of all of those surveyed said they would like to see someone else win their congressional district.
The poll found that 46 percent approve of how Obama is doing his job, down from 52 percent in June. But it also showed congressional approval at a new low, 12 percent, with disapproval at 87 percent, a new high.
The core philosophical dispute that has been at the heart of every major domestic-policy standoff this year is the GOP insistence that reducing the deficit is the priority and that it must be done with spending cuts alone, not tax increases. Democrats want shorter-term spending to prop up the sagging recovery combined with a mix of longer-term tax increases and spending cuts to trim deficits.
It's not only divided the two parties in Washington, "it pretty much splits the country in half," said Michael Dimock, associate research director at the Pew Research Center. He said that when people were asked "what should be the priority, reducing the budget deficit or spending to help the economy to recover," Americans were nearly evenly divided with just under 50 percent on each side.
At the same time, "there's a great deal of frustration in the public right now, and it's crossing party lines. There's a sense that neither side is really working toward solving the country's problems but trying to win some kind of political game," Dimock said. "I think it's probably affecting both political parties."
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.