Despite the long-awaited showdown over judges expected in the Senate as early as Wednesday, powerful forces are at work against partisan gridlock, both within and without Congress.
From the business lobby to elements within the parties themselves, pressure is growing to make progress on major legislation at a time when the public perception of Congress is often one of almost total stasis.
And, underneath the posturing and political infighting, work is getting done. Take roads. They run through every state and congressional district in the nation, and economists say that every $1 billion spent on roads creates 40,000 jobs. The Senate version of the bill proposes at least $284 billion in spending on the nation's highways and ground transportation.
That's why both parties are moving the highway bill for a vote on the Senate floor before the expected blowup over a rule change that would make it easier to confirm judges.
Other major bills advancing that have at least some bipartisan support: energy legislation, permanent repeal of the estate tax, defense and homeland security spending bills, expanded federal funding for stem sell research, and a deal on asbestos claims, which have already bankrupted more than 70 US companies.
"The most highly publicized pressure on the Senate has been from the ideological groups battling on the moral issues," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. "But equally important is pressure from the business community and people who have a great deal at stake in the highway bill and other legislation that has an economic impact on families and communities."
Indeed, industry groups and others, which heavily lobby both parties, don't want to see the Senate shut down. In a signal to the duelists on Capitol Hill, John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, called on lawmakers to move swiftly on pending legislation that could mean a $1 trillion boost to the US economy. "American is waiting for decisions to be made," said the former Michigan governor in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club last week. "There can be no more excuses for delay."
At the same time, rank-and-file members need a legislative record. Republicans remember the hit taken by Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, over the government shutdown in 1995. For Democrats, the 2004 defeat of former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle is a reminder of the risks of appearing "obstructionist."
Even the clash over a rule change on confirming judges, once cast by both sides as a "nuclear option" sure to bring Senate business to a halt, is quietly being downgraded to more guerrilla warfare.
True, in a spirited exchange with leading Democrats on the Senate floor last week, Sen. Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee described the fight over judges as "much more important than most of the legislation that goes through here." And for much of both party's activist base, highly engaged in the culture wars, it is.
But the war of words over the issue at the leadership level has recently been all but eclipsed by negotiations behind the scenes by players such as Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi and Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska to find a way out. At the same time, Democrats disavow any intent to shut down or even slow down Senate work.
"The suggestion that we will shut down the Senate is just wrong," said Sen. Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Demo crat, at a briefing with reporters last week. "We lived through Newt Gingrich.... He retired that trophy."
BOTH parties are aware of their declining popularity with the American public. Recent polls show approval ratings for Congress have dipped to 35 percent - the lowest during the Bush presidency. "You can go only go so far as the 'just say no' party," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. "Neither side wants to be responsible for shutting down the government..."
Even if the Senate is embroiled in a judicial-nomination fight, both parties are committed to moving anything to do with defense or homeland security. A House bill last week to allocate homeland security funding mainly on the basis of risk, not politics, picked up all but 10 votes. The $81.9 billion Iraq war supplemental passed the Senate last week unanimously.
Also pending: A bill to boost stem-cell research has bipartisan support in the House, and is expected to come to a vote before the Memorial Day recess. The bill would expand federal funding of research, now restricted by a 2001 presidential order to just 22 stem-cell lines. The new bill would extend federal funding to stems cells derived from embryos otherwise destroyed at fertility clinics.
The energy bill is on a fast track through a Senate committee with strong bipartisan cooperation. Senate Energy and National Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and ranking Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico start a markup on their energy bill this week. Even in the Senate Judiciary Committee, ground zero for the war over judges, chairman Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat, are moving a complex deal on asbestos litigation.
"I don't know how the Senate would explain to the American people that we've done nothing for five years in addressing any of the energy infrastructure or supply issues, despite price spikes at the pump," says Bruce Josten, a legislative affairs specialist at the US Chamber of Commerce.