Congress is on a week-long recess coinciding with the July 4 independence day holiday. Observers note congressional debate leading up to this important national holiday demonstrates the atmosphere of bipartisan cooperation that followed last year's terror attacks appears now to be very much a thing of the past.
It's July in Washington. The nation's capitol bakes in the first truly hot days of summer. Tourists crowd monuments and museums, as the city prepares for its annual July 4 celebration.
One of the most popular sites for American tourists is the great domed U.S. capitol building, situated at one end of the national mall. Last year, on September 11, the building was evacuated amid fears it too was a terrorist target, along with the Pentagon and World Trade Center towers in New York.
After September 11, Washington, and the nation in general, experienced a resurgence of patriotism. Politicians from the Republican and Democratic parties drew together. They pledged to push aside partisan interests as the country prepared for the long war on terrorism.
But in what is often called the world's greatest deliberative body, political warfare never ends. And as poor an image as it may convey to outside observers, furious emotional debate is an essential element of the American democratic system.
Yet, as Americans prepared to celebrate the Fourth of July, partisan conflict grew to seemingly unprecedented levels. Whatever the issue - be it defense spending, homeland security, prescription drugs, or corporate scandals - lawmakers used every opportunity to blame the other party for America's ills.
"It's unfortunate that we have a House Republican leadership that is a hard-headed lot. They are committed to a partisan agenda that seeks to protect the special interests at all costs, despite all the scandal we've seen over the last few months," said Congressman Dick Gephardt, leader of the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives. In this case, he and other democrats appeared before television cameras to blast the House Republican majority.
Republicans fired back at every opportunity. In May, debate on an emergency spending bill to fund the war on terrorism grew especially rancorous, and featured an exchange between Californian Republican Congressman Bill Thomas, and Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank.
"What the friends on the other side of the aisle are concerned about is that we might actually be able to accomplish something. Because every move they make, and every word they speak is planned to try to get them to return to power following the elections this fall!" Mr. Thomas said.
"Will the gentleman yield?" Mr. Frank implored.
"Our job is to run the country as a responsible governing majority, and we intend to do just that!" Mr. Thomas continued.
Mr. Frank rebuked, "The gentleman from California asked what it would be called if our point of order were to prevail. I'll answer him. It would be called democracy. And I ask that the majority not, in the name of defending democracy throughout the world, extinguish it here on the floor of the House of Representatives."
Such exchanges are heard more often in the 500-member House of Representatives, known as the more acrimonious of the two law-making bodies. This is also a congressional election year. Lawmakers know that their speeches seen across the nation on Congressional television, can generate more votes in November.
It is an almost daily observation, by journalists who cover Congress, and frequently by lawmakers themselves, that it is a wonder anything gets done. Can there be any cooperation amid such partisan animosity?
But when the issues are important enough, Democrats and Republicans do manage to reach across party lines. They co-sponsor bills, and hold hearings on domestic and foreign issues. History is fully of examples, the latest of which is the joint committee investigating U.S. intelligence failures before September 11.
Right now, however, the sparks that normally fly on Capitol Hill are replaced with real fireworks, as Americans celebrate their July fourth independence day. But that is only for a week. Congress still has a full plate of legislative work before it, and returns July 8 for a final month or so of political drama before a much longer break in August.