WASHINGTON -- Last week's partial government shutdown has underscored two critical points: The stakes are huge. And words matter.
The caustic rhetoric from both sides has erected a wall of mistrust that has precluded an agreement that both sides say they want and the nation needs.
"It's personal at this point," said Dane Strother, a Democratic consultant. "On both sides. But they've got to get past that."
An illustration came last week. After watching Vice President Al Gore on CNN contradict what they thought they had understood House Speaker Newt Gingrich to say about a budget deal, House Republicans fumed. They decided then and there: No deal, no end to the shutdown.
"We have never been more unified," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore. "The mood was very upbeat. Several times we broke into Christmas carols."
The White House, for its part, hasn't seemed eager to break the logjam, either.
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said that Mr. Clinton was tempted by the idea floated by liberal Democrats to avoid a budget compromise. In this scenario, the White House and Congress would agree on a series of short-term spending bills -- and then fight over the budget in next year's election campaign.
Last week, the jittery reaction in the financial markets indicated that this wouldn't be such a keen idea. "Now he's got to reassess," Mr. Hess said.
Stephen Moore, a conservative economist with the Cato Institute, said early in the week that Republicans he knew were ready to "declare victory and go home." But in an exercise that Rep. John A. Boehner, a top Republican, said resembled a "food fight," any perceived weakness by one side evoked intransigence from the other.
"These people don't know how to take yes for an answer," Mr. Clinton complained last week.
And so, as the great debate between Democrats and Republicans rages on, half the agencies in the federal government are without money, Wall Street seems spooked, and three months into the fiscal year, the government has no budget.
In the week before Christmas, a quarter-million workers were furloughed, half a million were forced to work without pay, and museums, parks and many government offices were shuttered.
It was the longest partial shutdown ever, eclipsing the record set a month earlier by the same Congress and the same White House. That impasse ended Nov. 20, when the two sides signed a spending bill to finance the government through Dec. 15.
Mr. Clinton promised then to balance the budget in seven years based on independent economic projections. Congress agreed to consider the president's concerns about protecting Medicaid and Medicare, as well as environmental protection.
There were no new talks until Dec. 15, when Republicans gave little and Mr. Clinton even less. So a second shutdown came. This time, the gap between the rhetoric and the reality was inescapable.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey insisted that the shutdown was "not political gamesmanship," but rather the cost of doing battle on behalf of a balanced budget and a smaller federal government -- something crucial to the nation's future.
And crucial to people like Jane Stiles, a claims authorizer in the Social Security office in Kansas City, Mo. She was supposed to be on maternity leave for the holidays. Instead, she was ordered back to work on an hour's notice while at the doctor's office and had to place her 7-week-old daughter in a day-care center.
The White House had said that the lights on the National Christmas Tree would stay on because the president promised to pay the electricity bill.
Then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and other members of Congress offered to pay for the lights, too.
And so the lights stayed on. But the tree, visible from Mr. Clinton's bedroom, was inaccessible to the public: Without Interior Department rangers to staff it, the traditional display was locked up. Gone was the famed Pageant of Peace, with its bonfire, its live reindeer, and the manger scene.
Presumably, the 280,000 furloughed workers -- and the 470,000 working without pay -- will receive back pay once the stalemate ends.
But those forced to work through the holidays won't get their vacations back.
"We did some research and found that this is the only government we know of in the world where a budget fight has forced the government to close," said Patricia McGinnis, president of the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government.
"It's childish bickering among partisans."
Yet the politicians insist that the budget showdown is about hugely important issues. Republicans want to rein in spending and give tax cuts to working people.
"Yes, [the shutdown] is hard," Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican, said last week. "But this is the first time in 30 years that we are going to have solved this crisis of a generation."