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In Washington, cross-party dealmaking hits a rough patch

President Obama created a fiscal commission Thursday based on a simple premise — the need for bipartisan support in Congress on key issues.

Yet his bid for bipartisanship on budget deficits, amplifying a theme of his State of the Union address, comes as cross-party dealmaking has hit a notable rough patch.

First came the tortuous and so-far unsuccessful negotiations on healthcare reform. Bank-reform legislation stalled in the Senate. Last week, Sens. Max Baucus (D) of Montana and Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa announced the outlines of a job-creation bill, only to have Senate majority leader Harry Reid nix it hours later.

Then Evan Bayh dropped a bombshell for Democrats by saying he wouldn’t seek reelection to his Senate seat from Indiana, citing partisan stalemate as a key factor in his decision.

‘Washington has never been this dysfunctional’

“I’ve never seen it this dysfunctional” in Washington, Vice President Joe Biden said this week in an interview on CBS.

A good day for bipartisanship these days is often when one Republican agrees to work with one Democrat. (The prospects for banking reform revived when Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee said he’ll confer with Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut on the bill.)

In an election year, it’s not surprising that both parties are angling for whatever edge they can find against the rival party.

When Obama said Thursday that “everything is on the table” for his bipartisan commission to consider, Republicans saw the opportunity to score political points by saying Obama is about to back down on his pledge of no tax hikes for the middle class. Even before the commission was formally announced, they leveled that charge at the president.

Avoiding preconditions

Politics aside, however, budget experts say it is important not to tie the commission’s hands with preconditions.

If the fiscal commission is to be successful – and proposes ideas that actually get passed in Congress – the best hope lies in its timing.

Obama has called for the panel, chaired by Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff for President Clinton, and Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, to make recommendations by Dec. 1, after the November elections.

The key then may be what message Congress takes away from the voters.

One message revealed in recent polls is frustration with Washington. The Massachusetts Senate-seat election of Scott Brown was not a sign of voter affection for Republicans, budget watchdog David Walker told a Feb. 16 conference in Washington.

“It was a disgust with the status quo,” said Mr. Walker, a former head of the Government Accountability Office. “It was a calling for Washington to become more connected with America.”

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