Skip to main content

After productive lame duck, ideological divides ahead in new Congress

By Ted Barrett and Deirdre Walsh, CNN Congressional Producers
The passage of a major tax cut bill showed bipartisanship in this Congress, but the next session probably will be rockier.
The passage of a major tax cut bill showed bipartisanship in this Congress, but the next session probably will be rockier.
  • Republicans won key victories on taxes and spending
  • New START, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" are major victories for Democrats
  • But when 112th Congress is sworn in January 5, productive session's luster will fade
  • Division could mean Congress moves quickly to a state of gridlock and partisan wrangling

Washington (CNN) -- Congressional Democrats and Republicans worked together grudgingly during an unexpectedly productive lame-duck session, clearing several major pieces of legislation, while setting aside concerns that partisan animosity and legislative gridlock would define the short post-election work period.

In doing so, lawmakers from each party -- and President Obama, too -- can claim legislative successes and political momentum heading into the new Congress, which begins in a just a few days.

"It was a season of progress," Obama said happily Wednesday.

Shortly after the November 2 election, in which Republicans recaptured control of the House and boosted their numbers in the Senate, congressional leadership aides on both sides told CNN they expected the worst from the opposing party as the lame duck convened to wrap up a long list of unfinished business.

Obama "will go into campaign mode and try to make us look evil," a GOP aide cautioned.

"Many Republicans appear to be opposed to the very idea of coming here to legislate," a Democratic aide complained.

But in the end, bipartisanship prevailed as a mix of lawmakers came together to pass a major tax cut bill, a trimmed-down government spending bill, a significant nuclear arms reduction treaty, and the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" law, which appeared almost certain to fail before suddenly passing.

"This Congress, with the capstone of the lame duck, was one of the most productive historic Congresses we've had," said a spirited Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democratic leader, after the final vote of the session. "People who think the Senate doesn't work should look at the last three weeks."

Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina even complimented Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid for everything that was accomplished during the nearly six-week stint.

"I admire good lawyering and good politicking," he said. "I'm amazed at what they were able to do. Hats off to Harry."

Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ticked through a list of bills that passed right before Congress adjourned, proudly touting Democratic achievements. But looking ahead, Pelosi, who rarely worked with Republicans during her tenure, struck a bipartisan note, pledging to reach out to the new GOP majority in 2011.

"As long as the American people have high unemployment rates, families who are looking for jobs, as people have uncertainty about their children's education, about their own economic security, our work is far from over," Pelosi said.

Republicans won key victories on taxes and spending

With extending the expiring Bush tax cuts as his party's top legislative priority, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell worked quietly behind the scenes to cut a deal with Vice President Joe Biden. In addition to extending the rate cuts for all income groups, the deal included a reduced estate tax that infuriated liberals, especially in the House. In return, Biden got Republicans to agree to extend unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, a key win for Democrats.

Ultimately, an attempt by House Democratic leaders to scale back the estate tax measure failed, but their very public spat with the White House foreshadows a bumpy road ahead for the relationship between Obama and House Democrats. The reality is that under GOP control in the House, and with smaller ranks, House Democrats will have little to no leverage if Obama again negotiates with newly empowered Republicans in the next Congress.

"The tax package was 76 percent Republicans, 12 percent Democratic policy," McConnell told CNN. "I think the overwhelming Republican majorities in the House and Senate indicate that our members thought it was the right thing to do."

On spending, Republicans blocked a massive government funding bill that was advanced by Democrats and stuffed with pet projects for lawmakers from both parties. Republicans unified only after Reid said some Republicans were "hypocrites" for apparently seeking earmarks and secretly hoping the bill would pass, while publicly opposing it.

In the end, Reid was wrong as a Republicans held together to force passage of an earmark-free, short-term government funding bill. Because the funding bill expires in March 2011, the new Republican-controlled House will be able to exert major influence on spending levels next year.

Democrats claim major victories on new START, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"

Repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" law that barred gays from openly serving in the military appeared doomed when Republicans blocked consideration of the defense funding bill that included it. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Iraq war veteran Rep Patrick Murphy, D-Pennsylvania, crafted a stand-alone bill, working with Senate proponents Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Republican Susan Collins of Maine. Their strategy to pass the bill unattached to other policy issues caught opponents of the repeal flat-footed. Comparing their strategy to military tactics in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lieberman praised a legislative "surge" for their success.

The repeal was a key victory for progressives, who considered it one of their top priorities before the Democratic-controlled Congress concluded.

Obama made clear that his top foreign policy goal for the lame duck was the passage of the new START nuclear reduction pact. However, with the top two Senate Republican leaders opposing it, he faced a daunting task getting enough GOP votes to reach the 67-vote threshold required to approve treaties. Republicans raised substantive concerns with the treaty -- mostly about whether it would prevent the U.S. from deploying a missile defense program -- but also were angry that Democrats and the White House were jamming a flawed treaty through the Senate without enough time to debate it before Christmas. Democrats stood firmly and, with the help of heavy lobbying by Obama and top administration officials, were able to win over 13 Republicans to approve the treaty.

Other significant bills were approved, too, including: a far-reaching food safety bill; a child nutrition bill championed by first lady Michelle Obama; and long-stalled funding for government settlements with Native Americans and black farmers.

As they raced to get out of town for Christmas, Democratic and Republican senators reached an 11th-hour deal to create a health care fund for 9/11 first responders. The House approved the bill in its last vote of the year.

One priority of Democratic leaders, an immigration measure known as the DREAM Act, was narrowly blocked when a group of Republicans and Democrats opposed passing the bill unless it was tied to broader immigration reform that included more border security.

Republican Collins, a key moderate who often votes with Democrats, said the American people want to see their elected leaders work together.

"Once the elections are over, they don't want us to retreat to our two corners and fight. They want us to work together as Americans," she said. "I believe we showed that we could do that in this session."

Democrat Schumer agreed and said the lame-duck session "sets a great tone for next year."

"Here's what sometimes people forget: We have our ideological differences and everyone wants to win in politics. But legislating, when you succeed in getting things done, is why we're here. And I think that's true from the most conservative Republican to the most liberal Democrat," he said.

What's next in the new Congress?

When the 112th Congress is sworn in on January 5, a Republican-controlled House and a smaller Democratic majority in the Senate will probably make the productive lame-duck session a distant memory. Divided government and more ideologically driven parties on both sides of the aisle could mean Congress moves quickly to a state of gridlock and partisan wrangling.

Incoming House Speaker John Boehner takes the gavel from Pelosi and leads a much larger and more conservative House Republican conference, determined to slash federal spending and reduce the size of government.

Boehner has vowed to make the "people's House" more transparent, and the first order of business will be passing a new set of rules for the House. In a nod to many new GOP freshmen with ties to the Tea Party, the Constitution will be read aloud on the House floor on the second day of the new session, and all new bills must meet a test that they are constitutional.

To stress the new majority's commitment to spending cuts, Boehner pledged one of the first votes next year will be to cut the House's own budget by 5%, which GOP aides say will save $25 billion.

Boehner also said the House GOP will roll back federal spending to 2008 levels, and he has promised weekly votes on spending cuts. When pressed for specific programs the GOP would cut, the speaker-designate declined to name any, but insisted right before Congress adjourned, "I will tell you we are going to cut spending."

Even if House Republicans have the votes to pass bills that reduce the government's discretionary budget, these probably won't clear the Senate to make it to the president's desk. And while scaling back spending to 2008 figures would save $100 billion in the first year, this falls far short of making any significant dent in the massive federal deficit.

A bipartisan panel issued recommendations this month to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion, but many of the controversial proposals -- such as raising the retirement age, eliminating a popular tax credit and imposing a new tax on gasoline -- will be tough to enact. The group failed to muster enough support from its own members to force Congress to vote on these recommendations. But given the public outrage about deficit spending, there will be pressure on both parties to show they are serious about tackling the issue.

House Republicans plan to follow through on their campaign pledge to repeal the new health care law, and they plan a vote on a bill early in the new session. But with a Democratic Senate, this effort won't succeed. Instead, Republicans will use Congress' purse strings to choke off funding to implement the health care law. They will also move piecemeal bills to repeal key parts of the reform, such as the mandate requiring people to carry health insurance.

While many predict the new class of Senate Republicans will make it harder to get the GOP to work with Democratic leaders or the White House, Reid said including Republicans will be essential to passing legislation.

"I think that we're going to be obligated to make sure that [Senate GOP Leader] Mitch McConnell believes he's part of the process," Reid said.

And the Senate majority leader was more hopeful about the prospects of getting things done in the new Congress, saying, "Divided government does not mean you can't get things done. Legislation is the art of compromise. And when you have divided government, that's when you have to compromise."