In Taxes, Guns and Cabinet, Gridlock Grips the Capital

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WASHINGTON -- If Friday's memorial service for one of this country's long-serving senators was a somber recollection of a bipartisan era that once was, the rest of the day was a frenetic reminder of the political gridlock that now grips the capital.

At the National Cathedral, the nation's political leaders eulogized Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who died this week at 88 after more than 50 years in Congress. President Obama said he learned from Mr. Inouye "how our democracy is supposed to work."

Across town, democracy was, at best, showing its gritty side as it ground along angrily, noisily and slowly: A weary Speaker John A. Boehner admitted failure in his efforts to avert a fiscal crisis with a bill to increase taxes on millionaires but asserted that his job was not at risk; a top National Rifle Association official bluntly challenged Congress to embrace guns at schools, not control them; and Mr. Obama bowed to the reality that Republicans had blocked his first choice to be the next secretary of state.

Though it has been 45 days since voters emphatically reaffirmed their faith in Mr. Obama, the time since then has shown the president's power to be severely constrained by a Republican opposition that is bitter about its losses, unmoved by Mr. Obama's victory and unwilling to compromise on social policy, economics or foreign affairs.

"The stars are all aligning the wrong way in terms of working together," said Peter Wehner, a former top White House aide to President George W. Bush. "Right now, the political system is not up to the moment and the challenges that we face."

House Republicans argue that voters handed their members a mandate as well, granting the party control of the House for another two years and with it the right to stick to their own views, even when they clash strongly with the president's.

And many Republicans remember well when the tables were turned. After Mr. Bush's re-election in 2004, Democrats eagerly thwarted his push for privatization of Social Security, hobbling Mr. Bush's domestic agenda in the first year of his second term.

New polls suggest that Mr. Obama's popularity has surged to its highest point since he announced the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the latest CBS News survey, the president's job approval rating was at 57 percent.

But taken together, events suggest that even that improvement in the polls has done little to deliver the president the kind of clear authority to enact his policies that voters seemed to say they wanted during the election.

Even some of the president's closest advisers said they were surprised by the ferocity of the Republican opposition.

"It's kind of a stunning thing to watch the way this has unfolded, at least to date," said David Axelrod, one of Mr. Obama's longtime advisers. "The question is, how do you break free from these strident voices?"

Friday's wrangling crystalized the challenges that Mr. Obama faces as he prepares to begin a second term next month.

In Mr. Boehner, the president has a potential deal-making partner who is unable to rally House Republicans behind his own plans, much less any agreement he might cut with Mr. Obama. In a news conference on Friday morning, Mr. Boehner essentially admitted he was running out of ideas to avert big tax increases and spending cuts early next year.

"How we get there," Mr. Boehner told reporters, "God only knows."

Just minutes later, officials with the National Rifle Association made clear what House Republicans had been whispering all week: The president's call for gun control in the wake of the Connecticut shooting is likely to run into tremendous opposition.

Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the firearm group, made clear the N.R.A. would not support the president's call for gun control, recommending instead a "school shield" program of armed security guards at the nation's schools as well as a national database that could track the mentally ill.

At the same time, Mr. Obama officially named Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts as his choice to lead the State Department -- a decision the president was forced to make after Republicans effectively blocked his preferred choice, Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations.

Ms. Rice, a longtime confidante of Mr. Obama's, was never formally nominated, but it was no secret inside the White House that the president would have liked her to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton early next year. But even on the heels of his electoral victory, Mr. Obama was unable to overcome Republican opposition -- led by Senator John McCain, the man he defeated for the presidency in 2008 -- to her nomination.

There are still 10 days left in which Mr. Obama might reach some sort of arrangement with Congress on averting a fiscal crisis that some predict could plunge the nation back into recession.

In an evening news briefing, Mr. Obama proposed a scaled-back deal that might avert fiscal crisis while putting off the major philosophical arguments for another day. He said he hoped lawmakers could cool off, "drink some eggnog, have some Christmas cookies and sing some Christmas carols" before coming back to Washington.

"Now is not the time for more self-inflicted wounds," Mr. Obama pleaded as he left town for a Hawaii holiday vacation. "Certainly not those coming from Washington."

In another 31 days, Mr. Obama will deliver his second Inaugural Address, providing him the opportunity to make his case to the American public on the direction he wants to take them in a second term. A few weeks after that, he will give his State of the Union address, which he has already promised to use in part as a call for new gun control laws.

Tom Daschle, a former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, said he feared Washington would remain paralyzed on taxes and other issues until the country truly faces a crisis.

"I worry that it's going to take that kind of a condition to bring people to the reality that they can't mess around here anymore," Mr. Daschle said.

On Friday, Mr. Obama was more hopeful.

"This is something within our capacity to solve," he insisted, even as he left Washington without even the outlines of a deal in place.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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