After the ‘shellacking,’ lame-duck session ends productively
At the outset of the lame-duck session in Congress, Washington Independent writers previewed what would happen. They predicted that a temporary extension of the tax cuts would pass, no significant environmental legislation would pass, “don’t ask, don’t tell” might be repealed and the DREAM Act would fail. Ultimately, that was about right.
An omnibus spending bill containing $8 billion in earmarks — many from Republican senators who awkwardly opposed the bill — failed, and Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels until March without funding for the implementation of financial or health care reform.
President Obama signed an extension of the Bush tax cuts — as expected — wherein he kept the support of liberal voters and neutralized conservative opposition. In the deal was a 13-month extension of unemployment insurance, which will end short-term — but painful — unfunded lapses that hurt the purchasing power of the economy.
These initiatives gave most of the tea party what they wanted. On the same day of TWI’s preview, I attended a small tea party rally outside the Capitol. Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina state director for Americans for Prosperity, told me at the rally that his group wanted Congress to pass a “clean, continuing resolution to fund the government” and an extension of the Bush tax cuts. (The Tea Party Patriots did make a last-minute push against the tax cut deal, comparing it to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but the deal was consistently popular.)
The DREAM Act, a bill that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented workers who come to the United States as minors, did not pass and certainly won’t pass in the next Congress either, with a Republican majority in the House and a more powerful Republican minority in the Senate. Activists did lobby Congress hard, and got three Republican votes in the Senate. (The measure passed the House.) But in the end, even a small sliver of the immigration debate proved to be too much to resolve — paradoxically, though the Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government is in charge of immigration policy, Congress remains paralyzed over the issue.
Then there were three pieces of legislation that looked dead in the water, but were passed thanks to some heavy lifting.
Congress repealed the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers — “don’t ask, don’t tell” — just over a week after it failed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. This vote came after an exhaustive Pentagon report endorsed by Secretary of Defense Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, that shows few, if any, potential negative effects in repealing the policy. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., was dedicated to repealing the policy, and pushed for it to be a standalone bill — and it passed both chambers.
The START treaty limiting nuclear arms with Russia also looked dead after Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. — negotiating for the Republican caucus — said on Nov. 16 it couldn’t be done in the lame-duck session. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and the White House lobbied Republican senators, and Republican opposition collapsed Tuesday. It will very likely be ratified Wednesday by the Senate with over 70 votes.
The Food Safety Modernization Act also looked like it would languish because a provision in the Senate bill violated the origination clause of the Constitution. However, the Senate suddenly passed the House bill by a voice vote Sunday, without the objection of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who had filibustered the bill. That version of the bill passed in the House Tuesday. The bill gives the Food and Drug Administration authority over 80 percent of the food supply, to prevent foodborne illnesses.
Congress adjourns Wednesday — three days before Christmas. Larry Sabato, professor of politics and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, tweeted, “It’s official. Like it or not, this lame-duck session is the most productive of the 15 held since WWII.”
Luke Johnson reports for The American Independent.