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December 28, 2012

Polarized Politics at Heart of US Budget Impasse

by Jim Malone

January 1 is fast approaching and there is still no deal between President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress to avert $500 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts that could have worldwide economic repercussions.

Political experts say that 20 or 30 years ago, Congress and the president would have had a much easier time reaching a compromise on the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ because the two political parties were used to working together.

But the escalation of polarized, partisan politics in recent years makes finding a solution now much harder, says University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato.

“This is a reflection of the deep polarization that exists in America and the fact that the two parties really have very little in common.  It’s not just a personal thing between President Obama and Speaker Boehner.  It’s more that they represent two clearly distinct philosophies of government and it’s awfully difficult to compromise your basic principles,” Sabato said.

President Obama won a second term in November and Democrats gained seats in both the Senate, where they hold a majority, and in the House of Representatives, where Republicans will retain control in the next Congress.

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution expects little change in the wake of the election results.

“It is a pipe-dream (fantasy) to imagine any easing of partisan divisions in Congress.  They were reinforced by the election, not eased.  It is a very partisan electorate and public and they are sharply divided,” Mann said.

But at the same time, those all-apparent political divisions tend to mask a public desire for political cooperation in Washington, says Brookings analyst William Galston.

“The country itself is divided.  Having said that the country is not as badly divided as the political parties are and there is much more sentiment for compromise in the country than there seems to be in Washington, DC,” Galston said.

Many congressional Republicans seem less interested in compromise than in protecting themselves from conservative challengers in future primary elections.

Analyst Larry Sabato says that is a main reason why many Republicans remain opposed to tax increases of any kind.

“Because their constituents don’t want them to compromise on taxes.  We need to remember what their constituencies are.  Most of them, the vast majority of the Republicans, have heavily Republican (congressional) districts and they can only be defeated in a (party) primary (election) by a Republican who is even more conservative than they are.  That is the key to this whole thing,” Sabato said.

Some Democrats may also be resistant to compromise if they feel that budget cuts are too severe, particularly if they involve popular government programs like the Social Security pension system or the Medicare health insurance program for older Americans.

Longtime political observer Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News believes there will be negative consequences for both sides if no deal is reached.

He spoke on VOA’s ‘Issues in the News’ program.

“I agree that it is going to hurt both Republicans and President Obama because I think the real mandate of the last election was that the American people want somebody to make government work,” DeFrank said.

Recent polls suggest the public is ready to blame Republicans for the budget impasse.  The latest Reuters/Ipsos survey found 27 percent blamed congressional Republicans, 16 percent blamed the president and six percent held congressional Democrats responsible.  However the largest percentage, 31 percent, blamed all of the above.