By Tim Reid
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The debt limit impasse in Washington, where a polarized Congress is struggling to avert an imminent U.S. default, points to a deeper crisis -- America may be entering an age of political paralysis.
President Barack Obama's ability to get any significant legislation passed before next November's election is all but gone and whoever sits in the White House in 2013 will likely face a Congress unable to tackle major issues.
A crisis of governance -- born of decades of gerrymandering, polarization and exploding deficits -- could persist in the short term and may last for a decade, said James Thurber of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
"We're in deep trouble. We are going to have continued gridlock. It's an era of deadlocked government during a period when the economy is not doing well and we are not doing well internationally," Thurber said.
"The world is looking to us for mature decision-making and they are not seeing it. We're in a situation which is unique in our history. And it's a very serious situation."
Anger is mounting among the American public and foreign observers are increasingly baffled over the ongoing failure of U.S. leaders to raise the governments $14.3 trillion borrowing limit and avert a catastrophic default.
The reality in Washington is that the political center in Congress has been shrunk over the last 30 years, leaving the House of Representatives in particular filled with ideological partisans on both sides unwilling to compromise to get a deal.
Charlie Cook, a veteran independent political analyst, said gridlock in the House will likely remain after next November's congressional elections and that neither Democrats nor Republicans will have effective control of the Senate -- making the passage of major legislation very difficult.
Cook said whichever party wins the 100-seat Senate in 2012 will likely have only a slim majority in the low 50s. Neither party will have the 60-vote supermajority needed to block an opposition filibuster -- a dynamic that means contentious legislation will struggle to win passage.
"The polarization has gotten to an unprecedented place," Cook said. "I don't think there's much expectation of major legislation passing in the next year and a half and, to be perfectly honest, it makes you wonder what will happen in 2013 and 2014."
But Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, is more optimistic.
"This is cyclical. When one party overreaches, the other party steps in. Then you get productivity. Institutions can modify their behavior," she said.
The current gridlock means that important legislation is languishing in Congress, where Republicans now control the House and Obama's Democrats control the Senate.
A partisan impasse has resulted in a funding shutdown for the Federal Aviation Administration, which could lead to the grounding of aircraft.
Disagreement between the parties has also prevented funding for the Highway Trust Fund, meaning projects to build and repair roads are on hold. And Obama's wish for climate change legislation and immigration reform remain stymied.
The country's founding fathers rejected the parliamentary system of government used in places like Britain, where the prime minister derives power from his party's majority and is able to force through much of his own agenda.
Instead, the founders of the United States designed a system of divided government, built on checks and balances and the separation of powers, where a president often must deal with a divided Congress or one run by the opposition.
"That system only works through compromise and conciliation," said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to Democratic President Bill Clinton.
"Right now, it's a serious problem. To the extent today that the American political parties are divided from one another and internally homogenous, then the foundation for constructing a compromise is much weaker."
"AGONY AND DELAY"
What particularly worries Thurber is the gridlock will mean Washington might be incapable of striking a meaningful deal to cut long-term deficits, which will attract the ire of investors and credit ratings agencies.
Congress also has failed to pass a budget for the next fiscal year, beginning on October 1.
This raises the likelihood of a repeat of what happened in the last fiscal year, when Congress passed a series of short-term measures to keep the government funded but which culminated in a government shutdown crisis in April.
The crisis was averted just before a midnight deadline when party leaders agreed to a deal that included spending cuts.
"We are setting up a situation where we will have agony and delay over the budget. There is going to be a lot of pain. We could have a shutdown," Thurber said. "Add to this a bad economy and it makes it just unbearable."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)