WASHINGTON, D.C. — If there’s one thing President Barack Obama, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at least pretend to agree on it’s this: that come November 7th a new era of comity and good will shall sweep into the nation’s Capitol, thawing the gridlock that has frozen official Washington for nearly two years.
"I believe that if we're successful in this election, when we're successful in this election, that the fever may break,” President Obama said in June of the implacable Republican opposition to his agenda.
It’s a pretty notion, so far as notions go. But it’s also one that has virtually no basis in reality.
Politicians, especially presidential candidates and the minority leaders in the respective house of Congress, love to sell the idea that if, just if, they are brought to power in November, things in Washington will change.
Obama made it a central point of his 2008 campaign. So did George W. Bush in 2000, and then Minority Leaders Pelosi and Harry Reid in 2006.
Mitt Romney has also promised to bring functional, bipartisan business back to Washington, a case that forms a central part of part of his attacks on Obama this year.
Noting the breakdown in relations on the Hill, Romney vowed during last week’s debate in Denver that “As president, I will sit on day one, actually, the day after I get elected, I'll sit down with leaders — the Democratic leaders, as well as Republican leaders” to discuss his agenda and begin finding a way forward.
But if there was any question whether Democrats would welcome those overtures with open arms, they were quickly dashed.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, dismissed Romney’s vow as political posturing, telling Buzzfeed in an email that, “You can take the 'Pants on Fire' rating to the bank on that one.”
“The Senate, with 53 Democrats, is the only place in America where Mitt Romney likes the 47 percent,” he added.
In recent history, those promises have almost never been fulfilled. And even when they have been, the swift cranking of the gears of government has been short-lived and generally led to a worsening of relations between the two parties.
Take Obama’s 2008 victory. He used strong majorities in the House and Senate to force through numerous bills, including controversial measures like the stimulus bill and healthcare reform.
But that change was transient at best, ushering in the 2010 GOP majority in the House and the bitter deadlock that has ground legislative action to a halt over the last two years.
“All the pledges to change the tone and tenure are welcome, but things are not going to change,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“It’s going to take a while to bleed out all the poison on Capitol Hill,” said Manley.
On that, if nothing else, there is bipartisan consensus among people who actually know their way around the halls of Congress.
“Beyond any progress on the fiscal cliff in the lame duck or maybe the beginning of the year if Mitt Romney wins, we’re likely to have more gridlock” and not less, said Ron Bonjean, a former leadership aide in the House and Senate.
Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, insist that if they take control of the Senate and the presidency, things will be different in Washington.
For instance, in a floor speech last month McConnell lamented the lack of action on the fiscal crisis, spending bills and even a basic budget in the Senate.
“It’s embarrassing. For the sake of this institution and for the sake of our country, we need to straighten this place out,” McConnell said, adding that “the pledge we make to the American people, if they decide they want to try new leadership in the Senate, we will do these things, even if they're hard.”
“Our commitment to the American people is, if we’re in the majority, we'll do the basic work of government and our hand will be out to our colleagues on the other side and whoever the President of the United States is. It is time to tackle the biggest problems in the country, the most predictable crisis in American history,” McConnell said.
But McConnell’s comments belie the reality that unless one party has a commanding 61 plus vote majority, the minority and majority leaders are, in effect, sharing power because of the constant threat of filibusters.
And that dynamic won’t change anytime soon.
“If there’s a Republican majority, it would still be tough to get things done because one party rule is very, very hard,” Bonjean said.
Of course, the so-called “budget reconciliation” process, which allows the majority to bypass a 60-vote filibuster on some issues, could be used to repeal most – though not all – of President Obama’s health care law, if Republicans take control.
But that would also mean an outright end of even any pretense of bipartisanship in Washington, and Romney could find Democrats blockading every nominee and piece of legislation in retaliation.
Those close to Reid acknowledged that should Democrats lose control of the chamber, there is no chance he will decide to work cooperatively with Republicans, and will instead continue to insist on 60 vote majorities for every vote of consequence – a position that Republicans have used successfully over the last several years.
“If you think that, in light of the hyper-partisanship currently endemic in American politics, things are going to change next year, you need to have your head examined,” Manley said.
To be sure, publicly politicians are still insisting that this year will be different and that after a divisive election somehow the two sides will find a way to come together rather than retrench.
Even Sen. Chuck Schumer, leading partisan warriors politicians in modern American politics, believes there will be room for compromise
“Obama wins by a significant amount, we keep about the same number of seats in the Senate and the House Democrats gain some seats, even not a majority — 10 seats lets say — it will strengthen the hand of mainstream conservatives [who] will say ‘this embrace of the Tea Party that … the Romney Ryan Republicans have done didn’t work,'” Schumer told Buzzfeed during the Democratic Convention.
But while Congress may find some way to come together on the fiscal cliff later this year or early in 2013, short of another major crisis Schumer’s faith appears to be misplaced.
“If we’re still in a close majority Senate, its hard to see anything moving quickly unless we have another national crisis” Bonjean warned.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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