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In the days before President Obama's inauguration, there was renewed hope of bipartisanship in Washington. But today, Congress is as partisan as ever. That's according to a new study from Congressional Quarterly.
Here's NPR's Andrea Seabrook.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Nasty and brutish, that's how political expert Norm Ornstein describes this past year in politics. And he says it took only days for the dream of bipartisanship to be revealed as pure fantasy.
Mr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): You have a president who wins in a landslide. He enters office on January 20 with a 70 percent approval rating. We have an economy teetering at the edge of the abyss, and he comes up with a major initiative to deal with it. Three weeks into his presidency, not a single Republican in the House votes for the bill.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): On this vote, the yays are 244, the nays are 188. The bill is passed without objection and most...
SEABROOK: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling the vote on the economic stimulus package. The partisan divide continued through 2009. The budget, environment legislation, health care - according to figures from Congressional Quarterly, the House took partisan votes more than half the time, and the Senate, close to a whopping three-quarters of the time - a record. And both parties were extremely successful at keeping their members in line. It's a striking turn from what the majority of Americans seemed to want in the fall of 2008.
Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has some ideas why.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: If a member of one party collaborates with a member of the other, then you might be reducing in some ways the wedge issues that will give you a chance to gain seats, so you may be jeopardizing something larger.
SEABROOK: In other words, Ornstein says, today, politicians are constantly campaigning. Unlike much of the 20th century when Democrats were perceived as a sort of permanent majority, now the control of the House and Senate seems always up for grabs. So the parties work hard to emphasize their differences. Another factor, says Ornstein, is the increasingly conservative Republican Party. There's little room for ideological conversation in the GOP. Moderates these days tend to be Democrats. And perhaps, most important to this era of striking political division is the rise of partisan media. Ornstein says the left and the right each have their own spin doctors on the air and on the net, 24-7. So the two parties can't even agree to a set of facts underlying any particular policy debate.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: Put all of that together and you've got a kind of witch's brew that drives our parties apart and enhances partisanship and ideological division.
SEABROOK: Now, put the question to members of Congress and you get two distinct perspectives on the problem.
Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): I've been here for three decades.
SEABROOK: David Dreier is a top House Republican.
Rep. DREIER: In this Congress, I will tell you, we've been completely shut out.
SEABROOK: In 2009, Republicans had little chance to offer their own alternatives to Democrats' legislation. In the House, the majority tightly controlled debate. In the Senate, Democrats held together and blocked filibusters. Dreier says if Democrats wanted bipartisanship, they could broaden their agenda and allow more participation from Republicans. Then again, you can look at this from a different angle.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democratic, Maryland; House Democratic Majority Leader): The Republicans have, in effect, chosen not to participate...
SEABROOK: House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer.
Rep. HOYER: ...for, in my opinion, political objectives rather than policy objectives, because they believe if we fail, they will succeed.
SEABROOK: Republicans made the political calculation that they couldn't win back the majority by voting with the Democrats, Hoyer says. So most of them voted no on everything they could in the House. In the Senate, they used every parliamentary trick in the book to slow down or halt debate.
So with this being among the most partisan Congresses in history, perhaps it's no surprise that the Republicans blame the Democrats and the Democrats blame the Republicans. Who you choose to blame probably depends on who you voted for. But if we can stand back and assess the most basic of facts for a moment, most people agree that there is little political incentive right now for the parties to work together on anything.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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