Lame-duck Congress suddenly shows pluck

With the signing of the tax-cut compromise into law and the possibility of more legislation to come, congressional leaders have asserted their authority to achieve bipartisan agreements in advance of a more polarized legislative environment next year.

The lame-duck session began with Democrats facing an emboldened GOP that vowed to block all action until its priority fiscal issues were addressed. It is wrapping up as a possible landmark moment, and one of the most productive periods in Congress in 40 years.

Senators are expected to vote Saturday morning on two top Democratic priorities — the Pentagon ban against openly gay military personnel and the youth immigration measure known as the Dream Act.

The immigration measure faces an uncertain outcome and advocates stepped up pressure Friday on key senators to reach the 60 votes needed to break a GOP-led filibuster. The bill would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as children if they attend college or serve in the military.

The repeal of the ban on openly gay military personnel is more likely, as 60 Democratic and Republican senators have indicated their support for ending the 17-year-old policy — perhaps a last opportunity to do so before the increased GOP presence in next year’s Congress.


The willingness of those Republican senators to reach across the aisle was seriously in doubt only weeks ago.

By early next week, the chamber also could be completing a long-sought nuclear arms treaty with Russia that is a top priority of the White House. Achieving ratification would constitute a signature foreign policy accomplishment for President Obama.

This conclusion is possible only because of the compromises often required to accomplish anything on Capitol Hill. While extremes on both ends of the political spectrum fueled the elections, it has been the much-maligned middle that has sealed the deals.

For Democrats, the lame-duck session provided one last chance to exercise majority control before Republicans take over the House in January. At the same time, Republican leaders saw a chance to pressure the White House into a compromise on extending the Bush-era tax cuts for all taxpayers, including households making more than $250,000 a year. The mutual interest led to the formation of fleeting coalitions.

“At the end of the day, the voters expect us to govern this country responsibly,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who was reelected to his second term last month. “That means working with the other side. It doesn’t mean posturing to one’s own base.”

The ending of this session of Congress is not fully formed. On Friday, as the House had essentially completed its work, the Senate remained locked in a partisan battle over the agenda that will keep senators working in Washington for a rare weekend.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a once hoped-for supporter of the Dream Act who has led the GOP filibuster of the “don’t ask, don’t tell repeal,” scolded Democrats for pursuing such policies rather than focusing on economic measures that became a priority in the November election.

“What are we doing?” McCain thundered on the Senate floor. “People of this country spoke — in the words of the president of the United States, a ‘shellacking.’ ”

Even more, with the Christmas holiday just one week away and a fresh layer of early snow in the capital, practical considerations have become as important as political ones.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is scheduled for prostate surgery Monday, but has vowed to return to Washington for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” vote. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who has championed efforts to end the Pentagon policy, is planning to walk, not drive, to the Capitol on Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

Despite the reputation for acrimony, historians consider the 111th Congress among the most productive since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s era, when the civil rights and Great Society legislation became law.

Swept into office with Obama in the 2008 election, the Democratic-led Congress has passed legislation rarely seen in one two-year session — from the healthcare law to Wall Street reform and now the $858-billion tax-cut package.

In between there have been lesser known measures: laws requiring bigger tobacco warnings on cigarette packages, equal pay for women at work and clear labeling of credit card rates and fees.

But these victories arrived with a heavy price. Democrats relied on their majority in Congress to muscle legislation through, often leaving Republicans to stand in lock-step opposition. Voters soured on government overreach amid the partisan warfare, and handed the GOP a stunning midterm election victory.

Republicans returned to Washington on Nov. 15 with what many saw as a fresh mandate to stop the Democratic agenda, leaving little optimism the lame-duck session would produce results.

Republicans vowed to block all Senate action until the tax and government spending issues were addressed, then scored a major coup by persuading reluctant Republican senators to abandon the $1.3-trillion spending bill that was loaded with their pet earmarks — hundreds of millions of dollars of specially-designated spending for home-state projects. Both actions were seen as a nod to conservative and “tea party” voters.

Yet as Obama’s tax-cut package came to votes this week, it overwhelmingly passed the in Senate and the House with bipartisan support.

Ten days after Obama unveiled his tax-cut proposal in the hostile post-election environment, saying the “bipartisan plan is the right thing to do,” it was done.