* Rivalries complicate efforts to reach debt limit accord
* Nonstop fundraising, campaigning encourage partisanship
* Moderate center vanishing in Washington
By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, June 1 The long-gone old bulls of
the U.S. Congress -- giants like Democrats Ted Kennedy and Tip
O'Neill and Republicans Everett Dirksen and Bob Dole -- knew
how to fight.
But unlike some of their modern-day counterparts, they also
knew how to get along and cut deals to rein in the budget, save
Social Security, reform tax and immigration laws, expand
healthcare and enact civil rights.
With Congress and President Barack Obama struggling over
many of those same problems today, critics question whether
Washington has the ability to overcome bitter partisanship and
find a path to cut spending, raise the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt
limit and avoid financial calamity by an Aug. 2 deadline.
"When I was in Congress, we'd get in a room, ask each
other, 'What the hell are you talking about,' say 'Stop your
crying,' and then do something for the sake of the country,"
said Alan Simpson, a former Senate Republican leader who
retired from the chamber in 1996 after 18 years of service.
"Nowadays, members are more interested in pummeling each
other than working with each other. It's sad," said Simpson,
who last year co-chaired the Obama deficit-reduction commission
that failed to reach a consensus to force congressional
Today's obstacles to a debt-limit deal have nothing to do
with lack of experience by those now in power.
Between them, Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority
Leader Harry Reid and House of Representatives Speaker John
Boehner -- three central players in the unfolding debt and
spending-cut debate -- have worked 85 years in Washington.
Rather, campaign fundraising that never ends, 24-hour cable
news networks and websites that thrive on conflict and a
polarized electorate have collided to make it tougher for
lawmakers to find their way to a deal and a handshake.
Now, members of Congress seem more motivated by politics
and point-scoring with voters than with policy, said Norm
Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning
American Enterprise Institute.
He cited the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell,
telling The National Journal last year: "The single most
important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be
a one-term president."
"That kind of statement never would have been made by
Everett Dirksen," Ornstein said of the Republican icon who
joined with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to find
the votes to enact landmark civil rights legislation.
Despite public disdain for the backroom dealmaking of the
old days, it is still practiced in Congress. Just look at how
Democrats in 2009 and 2010 attempted to craft a climate bill
that sputtered or the healthcare bill that was enacted.
But those earlier closed-door sessions were often more
productive because there were more people willing to deal.
Paul Light, a political science professor at New York
University, said that decades ago, dealmakers like Democrat
Hubert Humphrey and Republican Jacob Javits "had the
credibility to carry a group of votes into the room and say, 'I
can get my people to follow this, so let's cut a deal.'"
"You don't have that kind of credibility any more -- you
certainly don't have it" with the current crop of top
Democratic and Republican leaders, Light said.
The United States has had a history of the left and right
airing positions that eventually lead to a moderate center.
That is getting tougher with the rise of the fiscally
conservative Tea Party movement that has pushed Republicans
farther to the right and prompted Democratic Party liberals on
Capitol Hill to dig in deeper on the left.
In 1970, 33 percent of members of Congress were considered
moderates, based on their voting records, according to James
Thurber of American University's Center for Congressional and
In 2011, that figure stands at 5 percent, Thurber said.
"The extreme partisanship, lack of civility and comity and
inability to pass legislation has occurred as a result of more
individuals on the far right and far left being elected to the
House and Senate," Thurber said.
And so as Democrats and Republicans attempt to eliminate
$1.5 trillion annual budget deficits that have swelled the
government's debt to $14.3 trillion, each side has entered the
"negotiations" less willing to compromise.
Republicans say taxes can't be raised and they are not
interested in paring defense. Democrats don't want to cut
Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare and Medicaid
health programs for the elderly, poor and disabled.
But the U.S. fiscal mess cannot be cleaned up without
dealing with those massive parts of government.
DISDAIN FOR WASHINGTON
The public's disdain for Washington has, at least in part,
driven the partisan divide in the capital city.
In the 1980s, Reagan, a conservative Republican, and House
Speaker O'Neill, a liberal Democrat, battled over budgets,
taxes and energy. But at day's end, they had a drink together
and shared a joke.
Back then, most members of Congress lived in Washington
year around. Democrats and Republicans golfed together and
their families sometimes even vacationed together.
Democrat David Obey, who retired from the House in 2010
after more than 40 years on Capitol Hill, said: "It was
difficult to say something bad about a guy if you were out the
night before with him and his wife and kids."
Former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, who served
in the House from 1977 through 2005, said in his heyday, the
powerful tax-writing committees would hold retreats, invite
administration officials and "talk in an informal relaxed,
unforced way about these tough issues. We also got to know one
another better and began to trust one another better."
The result, Gephardt said, was landmark tax reform in 1986
followed by bipartisan trade legislation in 1988 and a 1990
Times have changed.
A growing number of members now go home on weekends where
they meet with voters and campaign. Rather than bipartisan
relationships, they build partisan rivalries.
"Today there's incredible bitterness," Obey said. "There is
less in the way of personal relationships. And that makes it
easier to ignore the fact that the other guy has good
intentions and may have a good idea."
Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman who is a
Brookings Institution scholar, said today's issues -- the
country's staggering national debt, for example -- "clearly are
more difficult and you have a young group in the House, young
in seniority, who want to be fierce."
Tea Party activists, Frenzel said, remind him of the big
group of Democrats who entered the House after the 1974
post-Watergate elections. "They made it difficult for the
speaker to do anything," Frenzel said.
"It took them a little bit to settle down."
(Editing by Bill Trott)