It's possible the stalemate won't be broken by the time of the 2012 elections, nearly a year away. Some GOP strategists think Republicans can oust President Barack Obama and win control of both
chambers of Congress. That would enable them to enact much of their agenda and Americans could render a judgment on its results. Or, perhaps, Democrats will score big victories that would force Republicans to yield some ground.
The bipartisan super committee's collapse stems from an all-too-familiar reality of modern politics: Republican lawmakers respond to activists who overwhelmingly oppose higher taxes and Democrats answer to activists who will tolerate no nicks in Medicare, Social Security and other programs without steeper taxes on the wealthy.
The same differences pushed the nation to the brink of default last summer, prompting the first-ever downgrade of the government's creditworthiness.
Yet no leader or group has convinced enough Americans that everyone must accept some pain to bring taxes and government services more closely in line. So the federal debt hit $15 trillion mid-November. And the government suffered another embarrassment Nov. 21, immediately spooking U.S. markets and possibly unsettling foreign markets in the days ahead.
The super committee's six Democrats and six Republicans knew they would be criticized for failing to reach an accord. But they saw a worse fate in straying too far from their respective parties' uncompromising stands on taxes and social programs.
Many veteran politicians expect more versions of recent elections, which were heavily influenced by partisan activists who put a scare into lawmakers threatening to veer from party orthodoxy.
Congress reflects the public divide over tax and spending priorities. A new Quinnipiac poll found that 73 percent of Republicans want to address the deficit with spending cuts only, while only a third of Democrats hold that view.
Independent voters, as usual, occupy a middle ground. Slightly more independents favor a spending-cuts-only approach to a strategy that includes some new taxes. But neither option hit 50 percent in the poll.
In 2006, independent voters broke heavily for Democrats, helping that party regain the House majority. In 2008, independents again favored Democrats for Congress and they helped elect Obama.
But, last year, independent voters swung strongly to Republicans, who regained control of the House. Strategists in both parties are angling for independents' support next year.
One possible way to break Washington's cycle of log jams is for independent voters to increase in number and to insist on systemic changes in practices such
as congressional redistricting and Senate filibuster powers.