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Congress's new brinkmanship: Better or worse than politics as usual?

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With this brand of power politics, Republicans have managed to dictate the conversation in Washington – effectively shifting it from the need for economic stimulus to the need to cut, cut, cut. Factors that might have intervened to prevent walking up to the brink – namely personal ties across the aisle – have faded. And, of course, soaring US deficits do lend their own sense of urgency.

So far, the US balance sheet looks marginally better after these showdowns. But Congress's reputation as an institution capable of governing has taken a battering.

Such a culture shift has happened before, but on the Senate side. It used to be that filibusters were relatively rare events, but over the past 25 years they have been threatened often – so much so that a 60-vote "supermajority" is now needed to move any remotely controversial measure.

Here's how a routine issue – wrapping up the previous Congress's unfinished business – became a dance on the cliff.

Test case: fiscal 2011 spending

Funding for the second half of fiscal year 2011 (April-September) became the test case of the new GOP majority's clout. A new Congress typically deals with unfinished spending bills of the previous Congress by criticizing the outgoing majority for incompetence, then passing a monster bill with enough new spending for home districts to ensure it passes. But this time was different: House Republicans last fall had campaigned to cut $100 billion from President Obama's budget request.

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