Debt-ceiling showdown reflects divisions in states

From California to Wisconsin to Ohio, the partisan vitriol had been spreading from statehouse to statehouse until it erupted in Washington last month as Congress debated the debt limit and brought the nation to the brink of default.

Residents in states plagued by budget deficits and statehouse showdowns over government spending were already familiar with a discourse infused with an especially negative tone that's only likely to deepen as the nation heads into a presidential election year.

In Minnesota, a standoff led to a three-week shutdown; Wisconsin Democrats fled the state rather than kill public employee bargaining rights as similar feuds between unions and conservatives erupted nationwide, and after months of talks, not a single California Republican was willing to vote for the state budget.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton blamed that state's budget impasse on "extreme right-wing caucus members" who he said "understand little about government and care even less."

The state's GOP chairman, Tony Sutton, responded by calling Dayton "a spoiled rich guy" and questioning his mental fitness — possibly alluding to his previous struggles with depression.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, faced a budget showdown with unions that assailed his policies as harmful to the middle and working classes. He chastised a liberal group that opposed his plans to privatize more government functions.

"It's all in the pursuit of selfish power," Kasich said at the time.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown returned to the job after a 28-year absence promising to restore civility and repair a fractured Legislature. He hoped to persuade lawmakers from both parties to set aside their differences out of their "loyalty to California."

The Democratic governor proposed what he called a moderate approach to addressing the state's nearly $27 billion budget deficit that called for a mix of spending cuts and temporary tax increase, much like the plans before Congress during the debt-ceiling debate. After months of negotiations, Brown was unable to persuade enough Republicans to agree, leaving him to sign a Democratic budget that passed without a single GOP vote. Without Republicans, Democrats were unable to extend the expiring tax hikes.

Brown, 73, said he was shocked by the intransigence of elected officials compared to his first tenure as governor from 1975 to 1983. Issues that used to be nonpartisan are now politicized, he said.

"There's nothing in the Republican Party historically that demands the level of obsessional dogmatism that I see," Brown told The Associated Press in a telephone interview this week. "On the other side, the Democrats all vote together, too. So we're really missing the independent, robust debate that democracy assumes."

A prelude to this summer's angry showdown in Washington, D.C., came this spring in Wisconsin, a historically moderate and progressive state. Decades of divided government there ended last fall after Republicans won the governor's office and majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Democratic lawmakers fled the state and thousands of protesters stormed the Capitol for weeks after Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans tried to approve a major rollback of public employee benefits and collective bargaining rights for government workers.

Walker eventually signed the changes into law, but six Republicans and three Democrats face recall elections this month.

"The rhetoric and the division between the parties probably goes to the high points precisely when control of institutions is in doubt," said University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin.

The tone is especially sharp because many Americans are afraid about the future of the country, said Sal Russo, a longtime Republican operative based in Sacramento and founder of the Tea Party Express, a well-funded wing of the populist movement. But voters — and those they elect to state offices and Congress — have sharply different views on what the future should be, he said.

"There's people who are in office today with very different visions," Russo said. "It's difficult if somebody wants to make government much smaller and somebody wants to make government much bigger. How do you compromise on that?"

Months of haggling in Congress over budget cuts pushed Standard & Poors to downgrade the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history Friday. David Beers, global head of sovereign ratings at S&P, said the key consideration was "the nature of the debate and the difficulty in framing a political consensus."

Many Democrats blamed the debt ceiling impasse on lawmakers aligned with the tea party who were swept into Congress last year with little experience in government and a no-compromise approach.

But Russo, whose group is one of many factions in the movement, said he supports toning down the rhetoric. He said compromise is sometimes essential in government, and the eventual deal on the debt ceiling was an example of the imperfect balance it requires.

"I would say to conservatives, 'Well, you lost in 2006 and 2008, and those people don't agree with you.' And to those liberals, 'Hey, you lost in 2010,'" he said.

Yet many in office oppose compromise. That's left leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner struggling to try to appease tea party members of his own caucus and work with Democrats at the same time. He hesitated in a "60 Minutes" interview last December when asked for his views on pursuing compromise with Democrats.

"When you say the word 'compromise,' a lot of Americans look up and go, 'Uh-oh, they're gonna sell me out.' And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense," he said then.

The difficulty in reaching middle ground was apparent as far back as 2009 in California, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called lawmakers into a midyear emergency session to deal with a $42 billion deficit. After two weeks of round-the-clock sessions that lasted overnight, majority Democrats found enough GOP votes to pass a budget that included temporary tax increases.

Soon after, angry conservatives forced Republican lawmakers to dump the GOP leaders in both houses of the Legislature. One of them, former Assemblyman Mike Villines, said he had flashbacks to 2009 as he watched the congressional debate over the debt ceiling.

"The bipartisan focus gets dissolved and people go into war mode," said Villines, now a public relations consultant. "It was so strong, and so strong within both parties against their own leadership."

The conflict over the way forward is only likely to intensify as the parties jockey for control in 2012. In addition to a great divide between Democrats and Republicans, both parties face vocal internal factions.

Bob Hertzberg, a former California Assembly speaker who is part of two statewide groups attempting to restructure the state's government, said the angry tone is not healthy but that politicians must learn to adapt to the new reality.

"It's our challenge as a democracy to figure it out and still be leaders," he said. "... It's just harder."


Associated Press writers Judy Lin in Sacramento, Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Martiga Lohn in St. Paul, Minn., contributed to this report.