WASHINGTON — Congress is spending these opening weeks of the general-election campaign trying to score points with voters by forcing partisan opponents to cast embarrassing votes — and doing virtually nothing to ease the nation's economic, energy or foreign crises.
Political posturing is hardly unknown at the Capitol, but since lawmakers returned from their Memorial Day recess June 3, Republicans have halted Democrats' efforts to tackle the gasoline price crisis, Democrats have turned back a Republican bid to find common ground on help for the unemployed and the two sides are deadlocked on funding the Iraq war.
"Things are bad," said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "Politics is the focus this year, not policy."
Partisan politics, it appears, will continue to be the focus in Congress this summer, particularly because two U.S. senators are expected to be their parties' presidential nominees. No sitting senator has been elected president since 1960.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Democrats like to highlight how presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has consistently supported President Bush's economic plans, including his tax cuts, which they say disproportionately benefit the wealthy and do little to help today's sluggish economy.
Republicans counter that Obama is too eager to raise taxes, which the GOP says would stifle job creation and economic growth. Obama calls for raising income taxes on the very wealthy, raising the income limit that's subject to the Social Security wage tax, repealing a number of Bush's tax reductions for business and raising the tax on capital gains.
Events this week illustrated how lawmakers are playing these games.
On Tuesday, Republican senators blocked a Democratic energy bill that included a windfall-profits tax on oil companies. The bill would have helped pay for new technologies and production. Neither Obama nor McCain voted.
Then CNBC asked Obama that day if one way the nation could become more energy-efficient was for gasoline prices to stay high.
"I think that I would have preferred a gradual adjustment," the candidate said. "The fact that this is such a shock to American pocketbooks is not a good thing."
The vote and the comment gave Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky the opportunity to blast Obama and his party in one comprehensive sentence:
"The Democratic solution of raising taxes, which will of course raise the price at the pump yet again, coupled with the Democratic nominee for president's apparent admission today that the only problem he has with higher gas prices is that it happened too quickly, is not a solution to America's energy problem."
Next, on Wednesday and Thursday, the House of Representatives debated help for jobless workers, and the two parties weren't far apart on their legislative goals. House Democrats proposed 13 extra weeks of help to people in all 50 states, while Republicans wanted to offer the aid only in the 18 states that have unemployment rates higher than the national average.
However, the parties failed to find common ground, and the Democratic-led House debated and voted on the measure anyway — twice. The Democratic plan passed both times, but with President Bush threatening a veto, the bottom line is that no one will get extra help anytime soon.
The thorniest issue the two parties will tackle is still ahead: Iraq.
The Senate passed a $165 billion war-funding bill last month that included domestic spending, notably an expanded education-benefits plan for military veterans. McCain opposed the new GI bill, saying it was too costly and did little to encourage service personnel to remain in the military. Obama backed the measure, and sharply criticized his rival.
McCain fired back: "Perhaps if Senator Obama would take the time and trouble to understand this issue, he would learn to debate an honest disagreement respectfully."
"But, as he always does, he prefers impugning the motives of his opponent and exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions," McCain said. "If that is how he would behave as president, the country would regret his election."
The war funding bill is now in the House, where members hope to find some resolution by early July, but both sides say that will be tough, with all the partisan bickering.
Members say they know that the public is souring on them, but they can't move away from their parties.
"Anyone in America who is filling their gas tank must think that Congress is fiddling while Rome burns," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the Senate Republican Policy Committee chairman.
She said that Democrats just didn't understand how to fix the problem, citing the energy bill that her party blocked. "That an energy plan that has the following three points — sue OPEC, a windfall profits tax, form a commission to study price gouging — would have any impact on the price of gasoline at the pump is just nonsense," Hutchison said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also said she understood the public's frustration.
"You go to the pump, you don't care about 50 votes in the Senate, you don't care about process, you don't care about anything. You just want this to get done," she said.
Then she defined the problem in a very political way:
"We need a new president. We need a new direction. And it's just a matter of a short period of time and that will happen."
The two lawmakers inadvertently illustrated why nothing gets done, and there's little hope that it will, Schier said.
"Partisanship serves individual members well," he said. "Money flows in a partisan direction. Congressional leadership rewards partisanship."
With Democrats sensing that for the first time in 14 years they could control both the White House and Congress soon, "they are probably not going to want to take any risk," Schier predicted. "They know the environment looks good."