WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama couldn't get Democrats to go along on Syria. House Speaker John Boehner couldn't get fellow Republicans to go along on a budget bill.
The one man who has proven he can cut deals with the White House, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is consumed with a tough re-election bid.
It's enough to have Americans asking: Who's running Washington?
With the chances growing of a US government shutdown on Oct 1 and the danger of debt default after that, the leadership vacuum is raising the risk that no one has the clout to head off those calamities.
"It is a scary place to be," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. "And it's bad for the country."
Time is short. The House has just five work days scheduled before a Sept. 30 deadline to pass a government funding bill. No legislation is ready, since some Republicans rejected the first try offered by their leaders. Those leaders may cancel a planned week-long break starting Sept. 23 to make time for talks.
"I don't exactly have control of the steering wheel and I'm not sure any one individual does, even Speaker Boehner," said Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican among those opposing the leadership budget proposal.
Without such legislation, the government loses authority to spend after this month. Payments to contractors would stop, federal workers would be furloughed and programs not deemed essential would be disrupted.
Then, unless Congress raises the $16.7 trillion debt limit, expected to be reached as early as mid-October, the Treasury would be unable to pay creditors. The nation's credit rating could decline and the US ultimately would default.
The market for US government debt has yet to react to any potential impasse over raising the borrowing ceiling, as investors weigh prospects for Federal Reserve stimulus. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note on Thursday was little changed at 2.91 per cent. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index of US stocks reached a four-week high on Sept 11, and slipped 0.3pc on Thursday to 1,683.42 in New York, snapping the longest streak of gains since July.
The four top leaders of the House and Senate held a rare joint meeting on Thursday to discuss their plans to address those issues. They exited the meeting with no sign of progress.
"A small but vocal minority of Republicans here in the Senate, less than half of the Republicans in the Senate, seem to live in an alternative universe to keep demanding the impossible," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters after the meeting.
With that kind of stalemate, the way ahead is unclear. In past years, the leaders have found ways to reach an agreement, and drag their reluctant caucuses along, even if it comes down to a last-minute deal.
There is room for compromise: Most Republicans say they hope to avoid a government shutdown, as do Obama and the Democrats, and few in Congress say letting the country default on its borrowing is a good idea.
It's just not clear it'll work out that way this time.
"They don't have an answer right now," said Tom Davis, a Republican strategist and former Virginia congressman. "The determination of a majority of members is to get there. Once you look under the hood it's not very pretty watching this thing unravel."Each of the top leaders faces obstacles to cutting a deal. They also share negative poll numbers.
A Sept. 6-8 poll for CNN showed 78pc of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, with just 20pc approving. Obama's job performance was rated negatively by 52pc, with 45pc giving him positive marks. The poll of 1,022 adults had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
By arrangement with The Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service