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Congress watches its power ebb

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From controlling budgets to deciding when and why to go to war, Congress appears less relevant today than at any time in decades.

Lawmakers haven't exactly abandoned their posts on Capitol Hill. The committee hearings, the finger-jabbing oratory, and backroom dealmaking all continue.

But the center of gravity has shifted toward the White House, in a change that could be more than just the passing phase of Republican control on Capitol Hill. Consider:

• Early next month, Senate Republicans are proposing a rule change that would lower the threshold for presidents to win approval of their judicial nominees, from 60 votes to a simple majority.

• Congress is on the verge of passing a $400.5 billion defense bill this week - including what the Pentagon describes as a top-down transformation of the US military - with minimal discussion. In past years, defense bills have been grist for intense debate.

• Lawmakers are quietly chafing about Bush administration limits on their freedom to visit Iraq to make independent assessments.

Since the founding of the Republic, power has ebbed and flowed between presidents and the Congress. But now a confluence of factors could signal a more lasting change, some experts say.

During wartime, presidents have traditionally held the political high ground, and the Sept. 11 attacks spawned a notion new to America: a state of perpetual war. This comes alongside television's steady rise as the dominant cultural medium, which presidents have used to increasing prime-time advantage.

Throw in a remarkably assertive president and a Congress that currently lacks forceful leaders, and it's a recipe for a legislative branch with diminishing clout.

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