Experts hold little hope for change in Washington’s government gridlock |
Politics Election

Experts hold little hope for change in Washington’s government gridlock

Sweeping election victories by Republicans are unlikely to ease gridlock in Washington, despite promises that President Obama and party leaders will work to find common ground in the waning days of Obama’s presidency, experts say.

“My sense is, not a lot will change,” said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who has written books about Americans’ increasing government distrust and polarization.

Republicans rode a wave of dissatisfaction with Obama to seize control of the Senate and build the party’s biggest House majority in nearly seven decades. The sweep carried over to state races, where the GOP increased the number of governorships and legislative chambers under its control.

“We’re just going to get more of the same,” predicted Edward Planisek, 60, of South Fayette, a Republican voter.

Exit polls on Tuesday showed that 55 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Obama is doing, but a whopping 78 percent are displeased with Congress.

Critics blast the 113th Congress for inaction. Lawmakers passed 185 laws, the fewest since at least 1973, according to legislative tracking website In the Democrat-controlled Senate, Republicans filibustered to hold up votes and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., allowed more than 300 House-passed bills to languish.

A partial government shutdown lasted for 16 days as the GOP withheld funding over opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Joe Manchin understands people’s frustration.

“We have to take votes, even if they are hard. … We can’t just not vote on anything (because it) might harm our members from getting re-elected,” Manchin, D-W.Va., told the Tribune-Review.

“I have been very frustrated with how we have done this since I have been here in the majority. … I have told Harry (Reid) that he is wrong,” said Manchin, a moderate. “The bottom line is the majority party controls the clock, and if you want to keep (senators) here until midnight seven days a week until we break this gridlock, then do that.”

Out of touch

In polling before the election, voters rated the economy as their top concern — 88 percent told Gallup it would be an important or extremely important factor in their vote.

Half of those polled said they thought Republicans would do a better job on economic issues, while 39 percent said Democrats would.

People worry about the availability of good jobs, the situation with Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria, equal pay for women, and the nation’s budget deficit, Gallup found.

“For people outside Washington, our economy isn’t about numbers and percentages. It’s about practical things like paying for college, having a mortgage, buying good Christmas presents, taking a nice vacation,” said GOP strategist and Washington-based media consultant Bruce Haynes.

Yet 81 percent of those polled said they also care about the way the government is working.

“Democrats and Republicans are all in the same boat, as far as I’m concerned,” said Democrat Floyd Camp, 76, of Trafford.

Common ground

In his first public comments after the election, Obama said he looks forward to working with a Republican-controlled House and Senate “to make the next two years as productive as possible.”

But minutes later, he said he would act on his own by the end of the year to enact immigration reforms if Congress fails to pass a related bill. Obama has said his proposal would strengthen border security, reduce deportations and increase the number of work permits.

“He’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday, a day after likely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said such unilateral action would “amount to waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

Despite the sniping on the immigration issue, Obama and members of Congress think there are areas where the sides can find common ground.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County, cited proposals to repeal Obamacare’s medical device tax, approve construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico, and increase exports of liquefied natural gas.

“Those are the things I know have bipartisan support. I am very confident they can all get to 60 votes” needed to pass the Senate, Toomey said. “I would hope the president would be willing to sign some of that.”

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, mentioned the bills to repeal the medical device tax and approve construction of the Keystone pipeline, along with a bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., to develop tax-free savings accounts for people with disabilities.

“I think the thing for Republicans to avoid is any kind of overreach. That is the larger message voters have sent to Washington in this election,” Casey said.

But David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, said the “central message from voters to Washington is to get things done” during the final years of Obama’s presidency.

Opportunity ahead

Paleologos said Congress’ productivity could be influenced by how the political parties — and some lawmakers — position themselves for the 2016 presidential election.

Hetherington said several Senate Republicans are considering a presidential run, including Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

“I don’t know if any of them will have any enthusiasm to cooperate” with Obama or Democrats, said Hetherington of Vanderbilt.

On the flip side, said Haynes, the GOP strategist, “Republicans have an opportunity. The opportunity isn’t to fight the president; it’s to cast a vision for the future and show people where they want to lead the country.”

But Robert Maranto, a professor at the University of Arkansas, foresees something else: “I see a lot of gridlock and sniping, unless the president is actually willing to work with the GOP on policies he claims he wants done.”

Tom Fontaine and Salena Zito are Trib Total Media staff writers.

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