WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gridlock has seized control of Washington, from the White House to the white dome of the U.S. Capitol.
Republicans and Democrats are engaged in close combat over disputes ranging from the Iraq war to the federal budget to the firings of U.S. prosecutors, and more.
There is a lot of rhetoric, but action has largely ground to a snail’s pace. And there is little prospect of a major change any time soon, as the summer doldrums set in.
The overriding issue is what to do about Iraq, and the Democrats in charge of the U.S. Congress are trying to peel away enough Republicans from unpopular and politically weakened President George W. Bush to force him into a shift in course and start bringing some troops home.
Bush tried to buy himself some time by insisting last week that he will not consider a different strategy until hearing a September 15 report from the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
But some of his own Republicans are clearly conflicted and possibly susceptible to switching sides and could give Democrats the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate to advance a war spending bill.
“So far it seems that far too many Republicans have been committed to protecting the president, not protecting our troops. Hopefully that’s going to change,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
But Republicans think they will be able to hold the line.
“The Democrats do not have the votes in the Senate to change Iraq policy,” said Ron Bonjean, chief of staff to the Senate Republican Conference. “And therefore there is a lot of vocalization of unhappiness, a lot of complaining, but the result will be inaction until at least September.”
Each side has its own internal conflicts. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party wants troops out now, while moderates would like to adopt the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report from last December that says all combat troops could come out by next March.
Republicans are riven as well, from those who agree with Bush that the United States must stay in Iraq to prevent chaos from erupting to those who find the Iraq Study Group recommendations appealing.
Add to that a presidential election coming up in November 2008, including six candidates who are U.S. senators engaging in high-voltage rhetoric trying to gain the attention of voters, most of whom are tired of the war.
“Our message to the president is clear. It is time to begin ending this war — not next year, not next month — but today,” said New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton.
And then there is Bush, whose legacy is riding on what happens in Iraq. He firmly believes in the cause and has been consistently reluctant to change course.
“When we start drawing down our forces in Iraq, it will because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it’ll be good politics,” Bush told a news conference last week.
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar and professor at George Washington University, said: “This is gridlock compounded.”
Bush at this point has to stick to his guns, he said.
“He’s in one of those positions where he’s thrown all the chips into the pot,” Hess said. “If he pulls out, he loses.”
The parties have also locked horns over Democratic demands that senior Bush adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers testify as to what they knew about the firings of eight U.S. prosecutors last year.
And the two sides are sparring over taxes and spending, a dispute that has slowed the passage of budget bills.
Do Americans prefer gridlocked government? Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said sometimes they do, sometimes they do not.
“It depends on the circumstances, the party in power and where the public’s leanings are at any give time,” he said.