By Randall Mikkelsen

U.S. Republicans and Democrats have cooperated on a couple of occasions since Republicans assumed control of both houses of Congress in January.

But these rare examples are unlikely to signal any breakthrough in the Washington stalemate that has stalled progress in domestic and foreign policy.

The cooperation came on funding for domestic security and, in the House of Representatives, on allocations for an outmoded passenger rail system.

But here is why those actions are exceptions, and how an enduring political snarl can affect U.S. policy at home and around the world:

1. Republicans control Congress, but not firmly enough to push through legislation. They lack the seats to overcome procedural roadblocks in the Senate or a veto by Democratic President Barack Obama.

Furthermore, Republicans are squabbling. New-generation House conservatives influenced by the Tea Party rebellion have staked out ground to the right of an older generation under Speaker John Boehner on issues including immigration.

The new generation is pushing Boehner to wage higher-stakes political battles with Obama than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been willing to risk.

2. Obama is confident he can bypass congressional obstacles by using his executive authority.

He has challenged Congress by halting the deportations of some categories of undocumented immigrants and moving to normalize relations with Cuba.

His executive agencies have also pursued active agendas on issues such as environmental and financial regulations. Some of his actions have been contested in court, but he shows no sign of backing off.

3. Both sides are breaking protocol and precedent.

Actions such as Republican efforts to torpedo a nuclear agreement with Iran or the immigration order by Obama may be legally or constitutionally permissible. But they stand out as assertive exercises of power by rival branches of government.

Once barriers to political behavior are broken, it will be hard to retreat to within old boundaries.

4. The national election in 2016 may tilt the balance of power between the parties.

But a rising tendency for campaign donations to harden party policy stances and the increasing determination of political leaders to push their power levers to the limits will make it hard to return to a country governed by constructive consensus.


Randall Mikkelsen has more than two decades reporting and editing political and economic stories for Reuters, including seven years covering the White House and postings in Stockholm and Philadelphia. He helped cover the 9/11 attacks in the United States, two U.S. presidential campaigns, a U.S. presidential impeachment, Guantanamo terrorism trials and the 2008 financial crisis.

Originally published at on March 17, 2015.

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