It is fast becoming the consensus on Capitol Hill: This is a Congress at sea, adrift with no one at the helm to guide it.
As the House and Senate return today from a two-week recess, both parties are struggling with internal divisions that threaten to stymie progress on the federal budget, taxes and other issues that three months ago seemed ripe for compromise.
Increasingly, the political interests of congressional Democrats are diverging from those of President Clinton: Many are cool to the kind of budget-balancing deal he wants to strike with the GOP and eager to keep their distance from the White House fund-raising travail.
Republicans, meanwhile, are at war with themselves over tax cuts and budget strategy, and the future of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., remains uncertain.
The next two months will be an important test of whether the Republican Congress or the Clinton White House can seize the rudder.
“There’s nobody on the bridge - they are all down doing damage control on the hull,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “The last thing this Congress needs, in addition to all the accusations of campaign finance irregularities, is to have a session barren of accomplishment.”
Indeed, the pace began to pick up by the end of March, when the House passed a bill banning a form of late-term abortion and another to give more workers compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay. The schedule for the next two months is uncertain, but this week the House will take up a ban on federal aid for assisted suicide. The Senate plans to take up a nuclear waste disposal bill and later act on the anti-abortion bill and a chemical weapons treaty.
But even with stepped-up activity, this year’s agenda has seemed to lack a driving sense of purpose. “We’ve been saying the right words but we’ve been saying it without conviction,” said Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla.
Until Congress finds a more gripping focus, the atmosphere likely will continue to be dominated by two dark clouds: anxiety among Democrats about the allegations of fund-raising improprieties and infighting among Republicans as Gingrich struggles to repair the damage done to his prestige by a protracted ethics investigation.