This duck may be lame, but rumors of its demise are apparently premature.
Or, to put it another way: will the lame duck Congress actually get some things accomplished in the next few weeks? Conventional wisdom has held for the past few weeks that nothing much would happen in the lame duck, other than a giant fight over extending the Bush tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy. Everything else, this narrative prophesied, would get swept under the carpet, either (1.) because there won't be time to deal with anything else, (2.) because the Democrats didn't have the stomach for any other fights after the midterm election, or (3.) because it would just be easier to kick the can down the road to the next Congress. This conventional wisdom -- like much inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom, I should point out -- could turn out to be wrong, at least if the past day's news is any indication.
Democrats seem to be eager to fight a few battles before the sun sets on the 111th Congress. Strong statements have come from the most unlikely people. Votes are being scheduled on some very contentious issues. This push seems coordinated between the White House, the Senate, the House, and even the Pentagon. Meaning that the lame duck session might be a lot more productive than generally assumed, in the end.
President Obama's White House deserves a lot of credit, at least so far, for pushing these issues to the fore. While Obama's legislative style up until now has been mostly to work behind the scenes as Congress dithers, and then jump in and support whatever bill actually makes it out of the sausage-grinder up on Capitol Hill. This is a mostly risk-free strategy for the White House, because Obama never has to come out and fight for any provision in such a bill that may ultimately get defeated.
But maybe Obama has realized that the lame duck is going to be his last, best chance to advance any major parts of his agenda until 2013. Or maybe it's just part of the "midcourse correction" that all presidents go through after their first midterm season. Maybe it's because Rahm Emanuel is gone. Whatever the reason, though, it certainly marks a change in strategy (or, at the very least, in tactics) by the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has also been showing quite a bit of fight, as well. Instead of just throwing up his hands and declaring "there isn't enough time," Harry is promising floor votes on these tough issues before the lame duck is over. This shouldn't be all that surprising, because Reid has shown over the past two years that he knows what a powerful tool forcing the Senate to actually work (instead of taking an extra two or three weeks off) right before a holiday break. Whatever the reason, it is refreshing to see Reid out in front on a few of these issues, especially since the Senate has largely been the stumbling block for Obama's legislative priorities.
Three of the issues Obama and Reid are pushing currently deal with the military, in one way or another. Reid has made it clear that he's going to seek a vote on the DREAM Act, which is mostly an immigration measure (but which grants a path to citizenship to immigrants who volunteer for the armed services). This is a smart thing to do politically, because Latinos are becoming a much more powerful presence in the American electorate, in the Democratic Party, and (most especially) in Nevada, where they were the swing votes who just sent Reid back to the Senate.
The second issue is what is being called "New START" (a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty). This is the treaty which President Obama signed with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear warheads each country has, and to get American inspectors back into Russia (the old treaty expired a year ago, and the inspectors haven't been in since). In typical budget-busting deal-making, one Republican senator is holding up the vote because he wants lots and lots of money spent on modernizing our nuclear stockpile. Obama offered him $80 billion to do so, and then threw an extra $4 billion into the pot, but so far it hasn't been enough for Republicans.
The White House is fighting back on this, with the full support of the Pentagon, who sees the treaty as important for our national security. The Obama administration is lining up foreign policy experts -- both Democratic and Republican -- on their side in the fight, portraying the Senate Republicans as playing politics with foreign policy. This, up until very recently, was supposed to be a big no-no in Washington, exemplified by the saying "politics stops at the water's edge."
The most visible fight on military matters, however, is the push to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy (DADT), which keeps gays from openly serving their country. The Pentagon report on the matter is due out on the first of December, and it is expected to show support for ending the policy by a majority of the people affected -- people currently serving in the military.
Joe Lieberman, of all people, called a press conference today to push wavering Democrats forward on the issue. He swears Democrats have the 60 votes necessary to overcome the inevitable filibuster attempt by Republicans. The White House has engaged in the fight as well, with Obama reportedly making some phone calls to key senators to encourage their support. This is a dramatic turnaround from the story leaked a few days ago which had it that Carl Levin had already cut a deal with his Republican counterpart to strip the DADT repeal from the Pentagon budget bill. Conventional wisdom is proving wrong, once again, in other words.
President Obama is getting out in front on this battle, backed by Joe Lieberman and some powerful Democrats in the Senate, and also backed by the military's own leadership. This effort will be bolstered even more when the report comes out. This is good news for a number of reasons. Obama is helping himself politically by leading this fight (since an overwhelming -- and growing -- percentage of the public wants to see the policy end), perhaps because he has realized that if the lame duck Congress doesn't act then either the courts are going to; or else Obama's going to be forced to end the policy by Executive Order -- something he is loath to do.
On the issue of the Bush tax cuts, Steny Hoyer over in the House just promised to hold a vote only on extending the tax cuts for those making less than a quarter of a million bucks a year. This is going to put the Republicans in a very dicey position -- because they will either have to vote against a tax cut (which cuts across their own orthodoxy on such matters), or they will have to vote for a bill brought up by Democrats (also anathema to them). If they vote against it, Democrats can make all sorts of political hay over the issue, which is kind of the whole point. Eventually, some sort of deal will be cut in the Senate, of course, but that doesn't mean the House can't make a political point in the meantime.
In all the surprisingly feisty news from Democrats, though, some very important things are likely not to make it through the lame duck. Unemployment insurance will likely not be extended (cutting off payments to millions, just in time for the holidays), and a food safety bill might not make it through the Senate, which is just shameful. Republicans are betting on Americans following their "small government" philosophy, but when that means buying possibly tainted food, the Republicans might be surprised at how public opinion turns against this ideological stance.
But even though some big issues are likely to slip through the cracks in the lame duck session, I have to say that I'm a lot more optimistic about them getting a few other big issues dealt with before the end of the year. While it's always amusing to see the punditocracy proven wrong (once again) in their groupthink, that is merely the icing on the cake. Because it looks like the next month and a half is shaping up to be a pretty productive period for advancing the Democratic legislative agenda. This is indeed good news, because it is really the last chance any of this stuff may have of being enacted for the next two years. Which is much more important than watching the Beltway set wipe the egg off their collective face, in the long run.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant