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Dionne: The rise of the Armageddon Caucus

  • (DREW SHENEMAN / Newark Star-Ledger)

Are you ready for the Big Magilla of American politics? This fall, every important domestic issue could crash into every other: health care reform, autopilot budget cuts, a government shutdown, even a default on the national debt.

If I were betting, I'd wager we will somehow avoid a total meltdown. House Speaker John Boehner seems desperate to get around his party's Armageddon Caucus.

But after three years of congressional dysfunction brought on by the rise of a radicalized brand of conservatism, it's time to call the core questions: Will our ability to govern ourselves be held perpetually hostage to an ideology that casts government as little more than dead weight in American life? And will a small minority in Congress be allowed to grind decision-making to a halt? Congress is supposed to be the venue in which we Americans work our way past divisions that are inevitable in a large and diverse democracy. Yet for some time, Republican congressional leaders have given the most right-wing members of the House and Senate a veto power that impedes compromise, and thus governing itself.

On the few occasions when the far-right veto was lifted, Congress got things done, courtesy of a middle-ground majority that included most Democrats and the more moderately conservative Republicans. That's how Congress passed the modest tax increases on the well-off that have helped reduce the deficit as well as the Violence Against Women Act and assistance for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

All these actions had something in common: They were premised on the belief that government can take practical steps to make American life better.

This idea is dismissed by those ready to shut the government down or to use the debt ceiling as a way of forcing the repeal or delay of the Affordable Care Act and passing more draconian spending reductions. It needs to be made very clear that these radical Republicans are operating well outside their party's own constructive traditions.

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