by Jules Witcover

Such is the state of American politics that the president and members of Congress fled home for Christmas Day as an brief escape from stalemate, rather than the customarily joyous return to their happy family hearths.

President Obama returned to Hawaii, the state of his birth in the eyes of all but the desperate deniers. House and Senate members went home to be with their loved ones and their constituents, many of them distinctly unloving on at least two crises crying out for immediate attention.

The first, of course, is the approaching "fiscal cliff" at year's end. The second is the national horror over the slaughter of 20 small children and six attending adults in the elementary school in a devastated Newtown, Conn.

Beyond the notion that both president and Congress should have remained on the job in Washington through the year's most cherished religious holiday, there is a sense of futility if not despair that in both cases, a dysfunctional political system is bogged down in place.

Regarding the fiscal stalemate, a hapless House Speaker John Boehner, struggling to extricate himself and his party hog-tied by its tea party and other anti-tax extremists, miscalculated in thinking common sense would somehow strike them and permit some modest compromise. Instead, they flatly rejected his proposal to raise taxes only on millionaires, putting the crisis back in limbo.

Concerning even minimal response to the Newtown nightmare of restoring the lapsed 1994 ban on semi-automatic weapons of the sort that pumped 11 bullets into a single first-grader, there was no immediate action taken by the fleeing legislators.

When that nightmare in broad daylight first became known, President Obama merely expressed the same horror the rest of us felt. His press spokesman said for himself he didn't think it was "a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates" on gun control. Only two days later did Obama promise grieving Newtown residents he would use "whatever power this office holds" to deal with the catastrophe, again without specifics.

It was not until three more days when the spokesman allowed that the president still supported banning the assault weapons, and Obama then announced a task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden to produce a more comprehensive plan to address the matter. One can wonder: what might the reaction have been had he called for emergency action by Congress, when public passion was so enflamed against the crime, to restore that ban at once? At least the lines would have been clearly drawn on that one key part of the equation, with time enough to consider other aspects later.

One answer came last Friday from National Rifle Association kingpin Wayne LaPierre. In a defiant, media-bashing tirade, he called for putting armed security guards in every school in America, insisting that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun in gun is a good guy with a gun."

The NRA's chief defender, in verbally attacking those who advocate stopping the flow of more rapid-firing weapons and the multi-ammunition clips, only raised questions about his own political savvy, not to mention sanity. The tabloid New York Post ran his picture on its front page captioned "Gun Nut!" He was speaking more to his like-minded membership, including gun manufacturers, than to the public at large.

Meanwhile, American television, in keeping with the season, resumed the old Christmas movies replete with tiny tots with their eyes all aglow, anticipating Santa Claus and presents under the tree. Their shining faces could not fail to bring tears to many others in Newtown and around the country.

Any thought of denying the president and members of Congress spending Christmas Day with their families would surely also conjure up Ebenezer Scrooge. But even Scrooge made amends for past shortcomings in the end. One can only hope that when our government gets back to business later this week, it will do so with greater urgency than it has on these two vital issues so far.


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Not So Merry Christmas For Congress and President | Politics

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