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In U.S. politics, 2010 shaping up as possible sequel to 1994

President Bill Clinton, right, speaks at the start of budget talks with congressional leaders at the White House, December 22, 1995, including Speaker of the House Newt Gringich

Luc Novovitch/REUTERS

Bill Clinton has been out stumping for Democrats, telling anyone who will listen that he's "seen this movie before."

Of course, he has. He starred in it.

As the progressive president who rubbed the American right the wrong way, Mr. Clinton was the boogeyman of the 1994 midterm elections.

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Recession-weary Americans expressed their anger at the president they had elected only two years earlier by handing Republicans a historic midterm victory.

The GOP gained 54 seats in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate, giving it control of both chambers for the first time in 40 years.

House Republicans wasted no time in setting about to adopt, in a mere 100 days, the Contract with America they had campaigned on.

Under Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, the House passed legislation to reform welfare and cut taxes and spending - except for defence expenditures. In all, it voted to abolish 280 programs and eliminate the departments of Education, Energy and Commerce, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. That agenda stalled in the Senate.

The real fireworks came, however, when Congress presented Mr. Clinton with a budget resolution that included a $245-billion (U.S.) tax cut and $270-billion cut to Medicare, the federal health plan for seniors.

The standoff lasted for weeks as each side engaged in a game of chicken. Mr. Clinton finally vetoed the budget bill in November of 1995. Republicans' refusal to authorize spending led to a six-day shutdown of the federal government that month. There was a second three-week stoppage over the Christmas holidays.

The public blamed the gridlock on Mr. Gingrich and the GOP. Mr. Clinton accused them of wanting to slash Medicare for the elderly in order to pay for a tax cut for the rich, and the charge stuck.

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Though Mr. Clinton scored political points, and his own re-election in 1996, Republicans ultimately could claim to have won a policy victory. When all the wrangling was over, Mr. Clinton agreed to a Republican resolution that called for a balanced budget within seven years. In the end, a booming economy enabled him to balance the books in less than half that amount of time.

There are obvious parallels between the 1994 congressional elections and President Barack Obama's first midterm test on Nov. 2.

But if the movie starts out the same - with Republicans winning big - there is no telling whether it will have a similar ending.

Balancing the budget remains a pipedream for Mr. Obama. With a deficit of $1.3-trillion, the federal government is projected to wallow in red ink for more than a decade.

Still, the Republican Class of 2010 is likely to count a heavy contingent of Tea Party-backed freshmen, whose inexperience in government and enthusiasm for slashing spending could prove a volatile combination. Even though it backfired the last time, some Republicans are now suggesting they are willing to shut down the government to force Mr. Obama to take the axe to spending.

In the end, 2011 might just be a remake of 1995, after all.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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