Congress is scheduled back today for the next month, and it is clear that the last year and a half of the Bush administration will not be a “combat-free zone.” Unlike the last two years of Eisenhower or Reagan (after Iran Contra), the end of the Bush administration will more resemble the end of the Clinton administration and the first Bush presidency. In both cases, the party that controlled Congress clashed repeatedly with the party in control of the White House as a prelude to the next national election.

This is by design from both sides. There are clear policy differences between the parties on matters such as executive privilege, Iraq policy, federal spending and judicial appointments. There seems to be little interest in trying to find common legislative ground; each side wants to preserve the “issues” to run on in the next election. Thus far, “base” politics is alive and well.

There are risks to such a strategy for both parties.

For Republicans: Will this situation reinforce charges that the status quo is not acceptable to Americans and that only a change in party control of the White House can improve the situation? As the “in party,” can Republicans win a “change” election under these circumstances? Will this lack of progress further demoralize a GOP still reeling from the disastrous 2006 midterm elections? Will independents, a group that currently leans heavily to the Democrats, take out their frustrations on the party that runs the executive branch, namely, the Republicans?

For Democrats: Is there such a thing as “too many investigations” undertaken at the expense of legislating? Didn’t the public put Democrats in charge of Congress to get things done, not just to hector the president? If Washington remains in stalemate, what exactly would be the signature accomplishments of this new Democratic Congress? Can the majority Democrats really afford to “run the clock” for two years in hopes of winning the presidency in 2008?

And what about Michael Bloomberg? Does this ongoing gridlock give him the opening to offer a “third way” for positive change without being encumbered by the bitterness of the recent past or the ideological baggage that both parties carry from alliances with their interest groups?