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At crunch time, conservatives would withhold support for consensus Republican bills, embarrass the leadership, and demand so many wish list items in return for their votes that getting to 218 without any Democratic help became either impossible or produced laughable legislative results.
That erosion continued through the election. And now, with their majority diminished but the right just as, if not more, fractious than they were last year, Republicans can no longer count on their internal cohesion allowing them to set the terms of legislative debates. At times -- particularly when action is required -- it's as if there's a Democratic Party, a Republican Party, and a Tea Party; and the only coalition sturdy enough to reliably avoid crises is one comprised overwhelmingly of Democrats along with a few dozen Republicans.
That's how the fiscal cliff bill passed. That's how the supplemental approps for Sandy victims cleared the House yesterday. And more and more it appears as if that's how the debt limit will ultimately be increased. It sounds strange given how fiercely Republicans have fought President Obama for the past four years, but we seem to have reached a point where an uncomfortable center-left coalition governs the country when Congress must act. If that dynamic holds, then the big question for Obama's second term is, What happens when action is optional?