Power vacuum sends US close to fiscal precipice

WASHINGTON - America's political system was designed precisely to prevent one leader or faction from piling up too much power.

But as Washington hurtles towards a debt default and government shutdown, the problem is not the tyranny of the majority, but that no one may have the power to avert disaster.

A weakened President Barack Obama and congressional leaders from both parties, locked in an endless clinch of partisan bitterness, have failed to impose themselves on Washington's political jungle.

Obama, seeing an ambitious second term agenda expire on Capitol Hill, was bucked by Congress over bombing Syria and saw his fellow Democratic senators snub a favoured choice to head the Federal Reserve.

His rival big gun, Republican House Speaker John Boehner is hostage to the conservative Tea Party faction of his own caucus, and may have to choose between his job and tipping the US economy over a cliff.

Senate Democratic leaders lack the power to enforce their will. Republicans however have just enough of the stuff to grind the chamber to a halt, using stifling filibuster rules.

The brouhaha has emboldened minority factions and charismatic up and comers like Republican senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who lack power to change things alone, but can break a lot of crockery.

Forged in the memory of colonial tyranny, the US political system splits power between the president, lawmakers and the Supreme Court.

When voters split authority - there has been a Republican House and Democratic White House and Senate since 2011, - political rivals can cancel each other out.

Government may 'do nothing'

"We divide power in order to protect ourselves from an overzealous use of that power," said Professor Steven Smith of Washington University, St Louis.

"But in doing so, we risk that the government cannot act in a reasonably efficient, coordinated fashion and may actually do nothing."

Skillful politicians can still prosper, forging the compromise America's founders envisaged in the late 18th Century.

But polarisation in Washington was exacerbated by last year's elections.

Obama and Boehner, who have repeatedly failed to clinch fiscal grand bargains, are often criticised for a failure of political imagination.

And the Tea Party sees crushing compromise as a badge of honour.

If no deals are done to agree a government budget by October 1, large swaths of the US government will be forced to shut down.

Worse for the sluggish economy, Washington could default on its debts by the middle of next month, if Congress refuses Obama's request to raise the government's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.

The standoff was sparked by conservative House members, who insist any way out must include a commitment to defund Obama's cherished health care law - the crown in his political legacy.

But since the Senate is certain to disagree and Obama has a veto, the conservative insurgents have no power to enforce their will.

Anarchists and Arsonists

Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid complains "anarchists" have taken over Congress. Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi hit out at "legislative arsonists."

Vice President Joe Biden, recently branded the Republican shock troops as Neanderthals.

Boehner denies his party is running riot after he was forced to agree to the ObamaCare gambit.

"The key to any leadership job is to listen," he said.

If the stakes were not so high Obama might enjoy the spectacle.

But the president has worries in his own power base.

A recent revolt of liberal senators scuppered the hopes of favoured Obama candidate Larry Summers of leading the Federal Reserve.

Obama also hit trouble when he pushed for congressional authorisation to strike Syria over a chemical weapons attack - and was only rescued from embarrassment by an 11th hour deal with Russia.

Democrats were among the many lawmakers who balked.

Other liberals worried about civil liberties have also defied the White House over US spy agency snooping programs, and with lawmakers eyeing elections Obama will not have to fight, discipline may fray further.

Anonymous Democrats quoted in the Washington media have voiced a familiar complaint - that Obama does too little to butter up lawmakers and replenish his political capital.

"You're assuming he's above the fray. He's not, he's in the fray," White House spokesman Jay Carney chided reporters.

"He's twisted arms... to try to convince, persuade, cajole Republicans into doing the sensible thing."

Deadlines might be looming, but Washington politicians are playing a familiar game - blaming the other side for something bad that is about to happen.

Obama complained Republicans want to "extort" him.

But Republican Senator Marco Rubio told Newsmax: "I guess (Obama's) political people have told him that this is a political win - shut down the government and blame the Republicans."