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Sen. Reid proposes doing cartwheels down center aisle of Senate chamber...

Sen. Reid proposes doing cartwheels down center aisle of Senate chamber...

All the Makings of a Carnival, Except the Fun

WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 — As if there was any doubt that Congress was on the verge of devolving into a carnival atmosphere, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, on Thursday proposed doing cartwheels down the center aisle of the Senate chamber to draw attention to Republican efforts to block legislation.

Here, in the Cirque du Senate, there is trash-talking, whining and finger-pointing, bickering and, occasionally, brief flashes of serious disagreement on policy.

But with the clock ticking swiftly toward the end of the year and a stack of stalled legislation piling up, little is getting done in the Senate these days. And tempers are starting to boil over.

Mr. Reid, who turned 68 on Sunday and power-walks four miles a day, ultimately did not perform any gymnastics. But his fury over the inability to move the Democrats’ legislative agenda seemed to have deepened since Tuesday, when he accused President Bush of “pulling the strings on the 49 puppets he has here in the Senate.”

That reference to the Republicans, in a speech on the Senate floor, prompted Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, to accuse Mr. Reid of violating a rule prohibiting senators from imputing “any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.”

“It is my view that being called a puppet is in direct violation of that rule,” Mr. Specter said. He added: “I wonder if he is up to the job when he resorts to that kind of a statement, which only furthers the level of rancor.”

On Thursday, Mr. Bush once again criticized Congressional Democrats, saying they were not doing enough to help homeowners hurt by the mortgage crisis. “The Congress has not sent me a single bill to help homeowners,” he said. (Senate Democrats blame Republicans for blocking such bills.)

The president’s comments further escalated a war of words that also involved Vice President Dick Cheney, who, in an interview with on Wednesday, called the Democrats’ record “pretty dismal.” Asked what it was like to work with Mr. Reid, Mr. Cheney said: “Difficult. He’s — I’ll leave it at that. He’s difficult.”

Beyond the barbs, though, is a serious stalemate, with potentially grave implications.

There is no deal on the federal budget, which is needed to prevent a shutdown of the government. The House and Senate remain divided over how to fix the alternative minimum tax, which will drill a hole in the wallets of 23 million Americans next year. In a bit of good news, the Senate agreed to resume work on the farm bill, which had been stalled for a month.

But a much-heralded energy bill, which the House approved on Thursday, was expected to fail in the Senate on Friday.

The stalemate is creating sharp tension not only between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, but also between the Senate and the House, where Democrats have a larger majority and have been more successful in passing legislation only to see it blocked by Republican filibusters in the Senate.

“As an amateur student of constitutional history and as a member of Congress, I have come to the conclusion that the Senate was a historic mistake,” said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the No. 4 Democrat.

And for some freshman lawmakers, who came to Washington hoping to do big things for the American people, the late-session circus has been disconcerting.

“What’s frustrating to me and, I think, most of the freshman members, if not all of them, is that partisan strategy seems to be more important than the policy considerations at stake,” said Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky. “We all came here with mandates to change the country.”

Mr. Yarmuth said that he and many other House Democrats wanted their Senate colleagues to force Republicans to spend hours filibustering various bills, to illustrate for constituents why legislation is stalling.

Democrats blame Republican obstruction. “They are filibustering as if they are on steroids,” Mr. Reid said.

Republicans say the Democrats are to blame, for pursuing a partisan agenda. They also say Democrats call for votes to end filibusters that do not exist and, in some cases, seek to end debate on bills before debate has started.

Things are so bad between Mr. Reid and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, that in some cases they even fight about whether they are fighting about something.

On Wednesday, Mr. Reid insisted that the Senate could not come into session until noon because Republicans would have used an earlier start to halt efforts to finalize a bill on climate change.

Mr. McConnell maintained Republicans had no such plan. “I think maybe the leader was anticipating an objection that did in fact not exist,” he said. Seizing a chance to prove Mr. Reid wrong, he offered a motion allowing work on the bill to continue.

It was into this atmosphere of acrimony and impasse that Senate Republicans on Thursday elected Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona to be assistant minority leader, replacing Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, who is retiring. And they chose Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee as conference chairman, the No. 3 post.

Mr. Alexander, in comments that seemed oddly sweet given the anger on Capitol Hill, said he hoped to bridge the partisan divide. “My job is to help our caucus express our beliefs and our principles in a way that rallies Republicans but attracts Democrats and independents,” he said. “And I believe I can help do that.”

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