As Congress returns from the July 4 recess, the legislative outlook for the rest of this year and next is murkier than ever. That's because Washington has its eye on the 2000 elections.
Every legislative action from now on is made with those elections in mind. Not since 1980 has the country seen a political race like this one, with almost all the marbles up for grabs:
*Either party has a real shot at winning the White House.
*With a six-vote margin separating them, either party can take the House.
*Democrats probably can't take the Senate, but they can make gains.
*Either party could get control of enough state Houses or Senates to gain an advantage in the post-census reapportionment of federal House and state legislative seats for the 2002 elections.
*The next president might appoint as many as three Supreme Court justices, affecting the court's direction.
Despite so much at stake, the interests of the various players within each party often conflict.
In the White House, President Clinton is trying to build a post-scandal legacy and may be more willing to compromise with the GOP than Vice President Gore would like. The vice president's attempts to separate himself from Mr. Clinton's moral lapses have allegedly created rifts between the two staffs.
In the House, Democrats have little interest in compromise and every interest in trying to stall so they can run against a supposedly "do-nothing" GOP Congress. House Republicans, for their part, seem more interested in drawing clear distinctions between themselves and Democrats than in seeking common ground.
Senators, on the other hand, face no redistricting; only one-third are up for reelection. Republicans are more interested in passing bills the president will sign than are their House counterparts.
"New Democrat" senators would go much further in reforming Social Security and Medicare than the president or the liberal Democrats, who dominate the House minority.
Finally, the needs of the eventual presidential nominees may well conflict with those of party members in Congress.
These calculations will frame the maneuvering over the 13 annual spending bills, Medicare and Social Security reform, gun control, and managed-health-care reform. Depending on how the players see their interests, it could result in a flood of legislation - or a lengthy dry spell.
But Washington can't just fiddle while Social Security and Medicare burn. Voters want an end to the endless jockeying for political advantage. They want congressional Republicans and the Democratic White House to work together. Accomplishment for the public good is the best political maneuver of all. It's in everyone's interest.