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Despite hunger for change, Washington gridlock will likely continue

Frustration with Washington and its political leadership continues to reach record highs, making a “throw-the-bums-out” movement appear obvious for the coming 2014 midterm elections.

Or not.  

So far, there are few signs that a landscape-altering “wave” election has begun to materialize. In fact, an incumbent president working with an already-gridlocked legislative branch has the political system primed for more of the unpopular status quo.

Even President Barack Obama seemed ambivalent about prospects for change during his year-end press conference, despite a rare budget deal between the two parties. "It's probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship," Obama said. "But it's also fair to say that we're not condemned to endless gridlock."

Here’s our look at the top reasons why the gridlock is likely to continue through at least 2016, if not longer:

Next year’s midterm election
Maybe the biggest variable between now and 2016 is next November’s elections. At this stage, most political forecasters aren’t predicting a big change in the makeup of Congress.

The top Republican and Democrat in charge of the budget committees have agreed to roll back billions of the harshest automatic spending cuts for the Pentagon and domestic programs. Congress will vote on the agreement before heading home for the holidays. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

That means that a Congress responsible for record-low productivity, a government shutdown and a near-default on the national debt will return to power for another two years.

Unless the Democratic and Republican lawmakers who have clashed for much of the last three years suddenly have a major change of heart or endure some external, catalyzing political event, it’s tough to imagine much in Washington changing soon.

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To regain control of the Senate, Republicans would have to score a net six seats. Democrats would have to muster a net gain of 17 seats to wrestle back power in the House.

“I see no reason for anything to change,” said Charlie Cook, the editor of the “Cook Political Report,” which currently projects a modest increase in seats for Republicans next fall. “Relations between Obama and Republican are toxic, and it goes both ways, and relations between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are equally toxic.”

In the short term, next year’s election season means that lawmakers will likely shift from the business of legislating and toward show votes and posturing for the midterm elections.

That means any number of unfinished items from 2013 – chief among them, immigration reform – could wither as political considerations take center stage.

President Obama is still president
Republicans’ top goal is to take back control of the Senate from Democrats, and maintain their majority in the House. They face an uphill, but not impossible, battle to achieve their goal.

Results from the latest NBC/WSJ poll indicate President Obama, who has been battling various problems for months, is now confronted with a public that is increasingly losing confidence in his leadership. The President's approval rating has plunged since January, something David Axelrod attributes to Obama's appearance of detachment on healthcare and the NSA. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

But even in the rosiest circumstances, Barack Obama will occupy the White House through Jan. 20, 2017.

And in that role and with the power of the pen, he’ll be able to fend off most (if not all) efforts by Republicans to undo or attack his agenda.

“This may be something that carries over into the next presidential election,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist, of the gridlock in Washington. Though Walsh expressed some measure of optimism for the prospects of immigration reform next year, he said there’s “such a deep level of mistrust for the administration that in a lot of ways it’s poisoned the well for members to want to work with the administration.”

The relationship between Republicans and the White House isn’t likely to improve anytime soon. It might not be until there’s a new president – or a very different Congress – that hopes of real lawmaking are revived.

Past is predictive
Just take a look at the few instances of bipartisanship in this past Congress if you want to understand why the outlook for future success is so bleak.

On gun control, a modest, bipartisan proposal crafted by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., couldn’t even win enough votes in the more deliberative Senate.

"You know, that's Harry Reid's decision," Toomey said last week on MSNBC about the prospects for reviving the bill. "Honestly, I don't think we've got the votes to pass it in the Senate."

Maybe the biggest bipartisan breakthrough this year came when the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform law after months of hushed negotiation among a group of senators from both parties. But that bill’s dead in the House, where Republican leaders want to break the legislation down to some of its component parts. And even those pieces might not make it to Obama’s desk next year.

The other bipartisan “achievement” – the agreement to re-open the government after a prolonged shutdown and avert a default on the national debt – came against a deadline that threatened economic catastrophe. And each party split over the bill nonetheless.

Renewed hopes of bipartisanship did spike after Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, negotiating for House Republicans, and Washington Sen. Patty Murray, bargaining for Senate Democrats, came together to propose a modest budget compromise that would stabilize government spending levels for the next two years.

"I actually called them after they struck the deal, and I said congratulations, and I hope that creates a good pattern for next year, where we work on at least the things we agree to, even if we agree to disagree on some of the other big-ticket items," Obama said at his December press conference.

At his final news conference of the year, House Speaker John Boehner had a message for the conservative groups who demanded that they try to stop the healthcare law. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

But that agreement was so narrow in scope precisely because both parties remain so far apart on the major issues of tax and entitlement reform. And even then, the agreement forced leaders from both parties to paper over dissent in their own ranks.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., encouraged Democrats to “embrace the suck” in supporting the package; Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, lashed out at conservative groups that had opposed the agreement, and suffered 62 GOP defections on the final House vote to approve the budget framework.

The legislation also faced some resistance in the Senate, where the atmosphere took a sharp turn toward acrimony after Democrats engineered a change to the chamber’s rules to allow easier passage for presidential nominees. The move angered Senate Republicans, whose eagerness to partner with the other party further plummeted to new lows.

To boot, GOP senators forced Democratic leaders to exhaust every hour of debate time before approving a slate of presidential nominees this week. The procedural tactic didn’t accomplish much except force around-the-clock work into the early hours of the morning, which further fueled partisan bitterness in the chamber.

“McConnell and Reid despise each other,” Cook said, referring to the Republican and Democratic Senate leaders, “and the relationship between them will never improve.”


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