Worse, Democrats are starting to blame each other, with those in the House wondering why their Senate colleagues don't force Republicans to engage in grueling, old-fashioned filibusters. Instead, the GOP kills bills by coming up with just 41 votes. Senators defend themselves by saying that their House colleagues don't understand how the august "upper" chamber works these days.
If Bush's strategy is to drag Congress down to his low level of public esteem, he is succeeding brilliantly. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released earlier this week found that only 33 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of his job -- and just 32 percent felt positively about Congress' performance. The only comfort for Democrats: The public dislikes Republicans in Congress (32 percent approval) even more than it dislikes congressional Democrats (40 percent approval).
The Democrats' core problem is that they have been unable to place blame for gridlock where it largely belongs, on the Republican minority and the president.
In an ideal world, Democrats would pass a lot of legislation that Bush would either have to sign or veto. The president would have to take responsibility for his choices. The House has passed many bills, but the Republican minority has enormous power in the Senate to keep the legislation from ever getting to the president's desk. This creates the impression that action is being stalled through some vague and nefarious congressional "process."
Not only can a minority block action in the Senate, but the Democrats' nominal one-vote majority is frequently not a majority at all. A few maverick Democrats often defect, and the party runs short-handed when Sens. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Barack Obama are off running for president.
And Bush is learning that even when bills reach his desk, he can veto them with near impunity. On Wednesday, Bush issued his second veto of a bill to extend coverage under the State Children's Health Insurance Program to 10 million kids. Democrats have the high ground on the issue and more than two-thirds support in the Senate, but the bill lacks a veto-proof House majority.
After Bush vetoed the first version of the SCHIP bill, Democrats changed it slightly to make it more attractive to Republicans. And the new version passed both houses too. When Bush vetoed the SCHIP measure again, almost nobody paid attention. The Washington Post ran a three-paragraph story on the corner of page A18; The New York Times ran a longer story --on page A29.
Democrats can't even get credit for doing the right thing. If Congress and Bush don't act, the alternative minimum tax -- originally designed to affect only Americans with very high incomes -- will raise taxes on about 20 million middle- and upper-middle-class people for whom it was never intended.
Democrats want to protect those taxpayers, but also keep their pay-as-you-go promise to offset new spending or tax cuts with tax increases or program cuts elsewhere. They would finance AMT relief with $50 billion in new taxes on the very wealthiest Americans or corporations. The Republicans say no, just pass the AMT fix.
Here's a guarantee: If the Democrats fail to pass AMT relief, they will be blamed for raising taxes on the middle class. If they pass it without the tax increase, deficit hawks will accuse them of selling out. What's the alternative to the internecine Democratic finger-pointing of the sort that made the front page of Thursday's Washington Post? The party's congressional leaders need to do whatever they must to put this year behind them. Then they need to stop whining. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should put aside any ill feelings and use the Christmas break to come up with a joint program for 2008.
They could start with the best ideas from their presidential candidates in areas such as health care, education, cures for the ailing economy and poverty-reduction. Agree to bring the same bills to a vote in both houses. Try one more time to change the direction of Iraq policy. If Bush and the Republicans block their efforts, bring all these issues into the campaign. Let the voters break the gridlock.
If Democrats don't make the 2008 election about the Do-Nothing Republicans, the GOP has its own ideas about whom to hold responsible for Washington's paralysis. And if House and Senate Democrats waste their time attacking each other, they will deserve any blame they get next fall.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.