From Rep. Gabrielle Giffords tragic shooting and miraculous recovery to the debt ceiling showdown that nearly brought the federal government to a standstill, 2011 was a year full of political upheavals and surprises.
Here is a look at the top stories of the year.
A gunman shot Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head, critically wounding her, outside a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store in January. Unleashing a spray of bullets, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, killed six people, including 9-year-old Christina Greene, and wounded 12.
At the time, doctors dubbed Giffords' survival a miracle and said that only a "very small group" of patients survive this type of injury. Giffords told ABC's Diane Sawyer that she wants to return to Congress. "I will get stronger," she writes in her new book, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope. "I will return."
Republicans, Democrats and President Obama came to blows in March over the 2011 budget that starkly divided Congress along political lines. Facing pressure from freshman members of Congress who had come to power on the back of Tea Party support, the Republican leadership was adamant about slashing the budget heftily but were opposed by Obama, who famously said they should take a scalpel, not a machete, to the issue.
In the end, lawmakers forged a deal and very narrowly avoided a government shutdown, but the political divisiveness that ensued rattled the stock market and consumer confidence.
Just months later, the two sides went head to head again – this time on the issue of whether to raise the debt ceiling. Conservatives, including Tea Partiers, argued that Congress should not raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling even if it meant the U.S. defaults on its debt.
Lawmakers eventually reached a deal and averted what many economists said would have propelled another economic crisis. Republicans agreed to raise the debt limit by up to $2.4 trillion through 2013, in exchange for $1 trillion in spending cuts in 10 years.
Despite the urgency to prevent automatic budget cuts that will go into effect if Congress doesn't come up with a solution by early next year, the bipartisan supercommittee that was charged with finding such a solution came to a disappointing close in November.
Democrats and Republicans insist they are continuing talks even though the committee was disbanded, but a deal has yet to be inked. If Congress doesn't come up with a plan, automatic cuts in defense and social programs would kick in, starting January 2012.
The last of the U.S. combat forces returned home from Iraq for the holidays, ending a nine-year long engagement that has cost the United States 4,500 lives and more than $700 billion.
Though opposition to the war has grown among the public, it remains a topic of deep divisiveness among Republicans and Democrats. President Obama vowed to end the war as a candidate and fulfilled that promise as commander-in-chief. But many Republicans say the president should have worked out a deal with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to extend the Status of Forces Agreement. Iraq remains a bastion of instability and its government lacks a stable structure. The U.S. forces may have left, but experts say the war is far from over.
What began as one lone protest by a Tunisian who, tired of his economic plight, set himself on fire, turned into one of the biggest Arab movements in recent history. Its impact reverberated in the United States not just economically but also politically.
The Obama administration helped spearhead a military campaign with NATO against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, which eventually led to his overthrow and death. Though it cost American taxpayers $550 million and some frustrated comments from Congress members about the lack of an end game strategy, the overthrow of the longtime dictator was, in some ways, a political victory for the president.
The U.S. government, however, has received criticism for not intervening in other uprisings, especially in its partner countries like Bahrain and Yemen and for backing leaders like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted over the summer after historic protests.
In a top-secret nighttime raid that even Pakistan was supposedly unaware of, U.S. Navy Seals killed the world's most wanted man hiding in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. "Justice has been done," Obama proclaimed in a late-night news conference on May 1, calling it the "most significant achievement to date" in the effort to defeat al Qaeda.
Osama bin Laden was living in the compound with his three wives and several other members of his family. Just a few months later, the U.S. nabbed and killed another al Qaeda operative, American-born Anwar al-Awlaki. He was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen.
John Edwards, the disgraced former Democratic presidential candidate, was indicted this summer and charged with six felonies in connection with an alleged cover-up of his extra-marital affair with Rielle Hunter during the 2008 election campaign. In October, a federal judge denied Edwards' motions to dismiss the charges, saying the arguments by Edwards' legal team were not sufficient.
Edwards, once the star of the Democratic party, maintains his innocence. "What I know with complete and absolute certainty is I didn't violate campaign law," he said. "And I never for a second believed I was violating campaign laws. "
If 2010 was the year of the Tea Party movement, 2011 was the year the liberals dominated media headlines and the political agenda. The Occupy Wall Street movement grew from a gathering of New Yorkers disgruntled with the private sector to an international movement. Even Obama – who has become a target of protests -- addressed the movement recently.
"I understand the frustrations being expressed in those protests," Obama told ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper. "In some ways, they're not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party. Both on the left and the right, I think people feel separated from their government. They feel that their institutions aren't looking out for them."
Occupiers, as they are known, have also disrupted events held by presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other Republicans.
The twice-elected Democratic governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, was found guilty of corruption on 18 charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison. One of the charges was that he tried to sell or trade an appointment to Obama's former Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.
A year of bitter fighting between labor unions and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker culminated in a wide effort to oust the Republican governor from office. Signaling the popularity of such a move, in the first 96 hours alone, United Wisconsin reported that 105,000 individuals signed the petitions. Volunteers have even set up drive-through stations, where citizens can sign a recall form.