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A rush of deals in Congress follows 'shellacking'

By John Helton, CNN
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Reviewing the year in politics
  • Despite landmark health care reform law, few Democrats were touting it at year's end
  • Tea Party had huge influence on midterm elections; GOP wave overtook House
  • "I'm not a witch" and "tickle party" became 2010 political catch phrases
  • After yearlong bipartisanship struggle, Congress leaves town in a rush of deal-making

(CNN) -- The year in Washington began with Republicans complaining that President Obama and Democrats were ramming health care reform down their throats and ended with House Democrats complaining that Obama and Republicans were ramming a tax cut deal down their throats.

In between, there was a major shift in power as Democrats saw their short-lived control of Congress end in a midterm "shellacking," as Obama called it, fueled by the Tea Party movement on the right and a distaste for politics as usual in the middle.

And while no major scandals rocked the political world, there was the normal weirdness, including a Republican Senate candidate who felt compelled to run an ad assuring voters that she wasn't a witch and a Democratic House member who resigned after he added "tickle party" to the annals of 2010.

Landmark legislation

Obama campaigned hard to push through the health care reform bill, given up for dead at the beginning of the year. A bill of this potential magnitude would be a defining piece of legislation for most presidents.

While the final bill passed in March did extend health care insurance to more Americans, it didn't include the public option that would have created a choice between private insurers and a government-administered program like Medicare.

But it did give Republicans a wedge issue to run on in the midterm elections eight months later, tying together what they characterized as a government-controlled health care system with still-simmering resentment of bailouts of Wall Street and automakers and a big-spending economic stimulus plan.

No Republicans voted for the bill, and Obama had to sign an executive order ensuring that public funds would not be used to pay for abortions after moderate House Democrats raised concerns that the language in the bill didn't explicitly ban that.

Democrats did get enough Republican votes to push through another major piece of legislation in July that imposed new restrictions on the financial industry. It limited the ability to make risky trades and allowed the government to take over troubled institutions and establish consumer protections.

Another piece of consumer legislation passed in May gave greater protection to credit card users against unfair interest rate hikes, fees and penalties.

With polls showing a general unhappiness with government -- Republicans as well as incumbent Democrats -- Congress generally came to a standstill over the summer as most legislators were content to punt any unpopular votes until after the midterm elections.

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2010: No ordinary year

So sensitive were Democrats to the anti-incumbency vote that few would campaign on the achievements of Congress. Some even touted their votes against the president's programs.

But Republicans were no more willing to stick their necks out. By the summer, several establishment candidates and a sitting GOP senator had already been knocked off in Republican primaries by Tea Party-backed insurgents.

Movement builds momentum into midterms

The Tea Party sprang to life in the wake of Obama's election and was fueled by anger at government bailouts. It gained traction in the town hall meetings on health care during the summer of 2009 as Americans vented on elected officials who they saw as sharing blame for the recession they were enduring.

It took a giant leap forward in January when Republican Scott Brown came from 30 points behind to win the election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Democratic stalwart.

To be sure, Brown got a majority of independent voters, who make up the majority in Massachusetts. But Tea Party followers across the country pumped money into his campaign in the closing days and were able to claim part of the credit.

Three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett, toppled in Utah's GOP convention because of his vote for the Wall Street bailout and his efforts to draft a bipartisan health care reform bill, would be the first of numerous Republican establishment-backed House and Senate candidates to fall to those backed by the Tea Party.

A perfect storm of an unhappy electorate and an energized opposition propelled Republicans to the biggest shift in control of the House since 1948, with the GOP picking up 63 seats, giving them a 242-193 margin when the 112th Congress convenes in January.

And despite efforts by Obama to re-energize the young voters who had helped elect him in 2008, the youth vote didn't turn out in 2010.

But Tea Party Senate candidates might have kept the GOP from taking control of the Senate. It remains in Democratic hands, though with a smaller 53-47 margin starting in January.

Voters rejected insurgent Tea Party candidates in Senate races against unpopular incumbents in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada. In each of those races, the Tea Party candidate was plagued by missteps during general election campaigns or dogged by questions from the past.

In the Delaware race, the Tea Party supported Christine O'Donnell in the primary against nine-term U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, who was favored to win the general election after state Attorney General Beau Biden, son of Vice President Biden who held the seat until 2008, decided against running.

O'Donnell faced questions about personal finances and the use of campaign funds from her two previous Senate runs. And comedian Bill Maher released video from his 1990s show "Politically Incorrect," in which O'Donnell, then speaking for the morals advocacy group she had founded, said she had "dabbled into witchcraft" in high school, prompting her "I am not a witch" campaign ad.

O'Donnell lost to Democratic candidate Chris Coons by a 57% to 40% margin.

Scandals from serious to sublime

If not for O'Donnell, former Rep. Eric Massa's "tickle party" would have been the most memorable phrase of 2010.

The New York Democrat was accused of sexually harassing a male staff member, but he said the incident actually involved wrestling with his younger staff members on his 50th birthday, telling Fox's Glenn Beck that he held a staff member down and tickled him.

Massa in March said he would not run for re-election, then stepped down a few days later. He first said he was resigning for health reasons then later said he was being forced out because of his opposition to health care reform, though he later admitted that wasn't true.

He did stick to his story about being confronted while showering at the Senate gym by a naked Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff at the time, because Massa wouldn't vote for the president's budget. The White House said the incident never happened.

Massa wasn't the only House member to resign amid scandal.

Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican who admitted to an affair with a member of his staff, resigned the following month.

The White House was touched by scandal over the summer when a conservative blogger released part of a videotape that showed a black USDA employee, Shirley Sherrod, telling an NAACP meeting about how she didn't help a white farmer who was in need of government assistance.

E-mails from the White House and the USDA showed that officials were concerned about the political fallout and moved quickly to fire Sherrod before it became clear that the blogger, Andrew Breitbart, had posted only part of the speech. Sherrod was talking to her audience about reconciliation and helping people of all races and that she went on to help the farmer.

Sherrod was fired by Cheryl Cook, a top aide to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. But after the full videotape emerged, Vilsack apologized to Sherrod and offered her a new job in the department, which she turned down.

Are you ready for some football?

Sherrod wasn't the only political football to be kicked around the capital.

The largest oil disaster in U.S. history spoiled miles of Gulf of Mexico coastline and marshes and provided politicians opportunity to sully each other.

Republicans sought to make the BP oil spill "Obama's Katrina," referring to President Bush's much-maligned response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But there was plenty of blame to go around when it became clear that shoddy oversight of oil drilling preceded Obama's administration.

It didn't help the case of Obama's critics when Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton called the $20 billion damage compensation fund the White House negotiated with BP a "shakedown" and apologized to the oil company in a congressional hearing.

Barton later retracted his apology to the oil company.

A local issue that became a national one concerned a planned Islamic community center to be built two blocks north of the site of the World Trade Center, which terrorists toppled in the 9/11 attacks, killing nearly 3,000 people.

Dubbed the "ground zero mosque," by critics, the plan became a talking point in midterm campaigns around the country. Obama was criticized for weighing in on the issue, saying that Muslims had the "right to build a place of worship and community center on private property in lower Manhattan."

Then he was criticized more when he appeared to back away from that statement, saying that he was "not commenting on the wisdom" of the project but on the broader principle that government should treat everyone equal, regardless of religion.

Positioning for 2012

While no one has officially declared that they're running against Obama in 2012, a dozen or so Republicans are showing all the signs that they're considering a run -- taking up almost temporary residency in early primary and caucus states, writing books, cagily answering questions about presidential aspirations and appearing in reality television series.

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OK, only one potential GOP candidate is taking the reality TV route, but Sarah Palin's profile has remained high since her unsuccessful campaign as 2008 GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain's running mate. If anything, it might be higher.

Palin has authored two best-selling books, is a Fox News Channel commentator and been a headliner on Tea Party Express bus tours across the country.

And now she's appearing in that reality show -- "Sarah Palin's Alaska," in which viewers accompany her on hunting, fishing and rock-climbing expeditions in the state she used to govern and gives her a platform to jibe political opponents, as when she recently made s'mores to mock first lady Michelle Obama's child nutrition programs.

Palin and Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina were the queen and king of Republican midterm endorsements, presumably building up political chits for possible 2012 runs.

Among other Republicans who aren't saying that they are running but aren't saying that they aren't are:

-- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is also head of the Republican Governors Association.

-- Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is a favorite of fiscally conservative Republicans.

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, spearhead of the 1994 "Republican Revolution," who recently said, "I'm much more inclined to run than not to run."

-- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a 2008 candidate and current Fox talk show host.

-- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose profile was damaged by a lackluster response to Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress but heightened by the Gulf oil disaster.

-- Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose libertarian ideals are embraced by the Tea Party.

-- Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who opted against a re-election run for a third term and will leave office in January.

-- Indiana Sen. Mike Pence, who like Palin and DeMint criss-crossed the country this year in support of Republican candidates.

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a 2008 candidate and still the favorite of the Republican establishment.

-- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who lost his re-election bid four years ago but has spent his time out of office appearing for conservative causes.

-- South Dakota Sen. John Thune, whose Midwestern roots could help in neighboring Iowa, which holds the country's first nominating contest.

Not such a lame-duck Congress after all

Following the rancor of the midterm elections, few thought the bitter divide between parties would be bridged to accomplish much of anything as the 111th Congress wrapped up its "lame-duck" session before the new Congress is sworn in.

That all changed when Obama and Republicans were able to negotiate a deal that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two years as well as unemployment insurance benefits for 13 months.

Maybe it was the Tea Party House freshmen in the next Congress getting their official orientation to Washington that added some immediacy to the deal. They have vowed to attack the deficit, and the climate won't be conducive to adding government debt any time soon.

The Tea Party has warned sitting legislators that they'll be targets in 2012 if they don't toe the line.

House Democrats initially balked at the deal, objecting to extending the tax cuts to richer Americans and wanting adjustments to estate-tax provisions that they saw as generous to the wealthy.

After a bit of bluster in meetings, on the floor and on TV, House Democrats eventually signed on and followed the Senate in passing it.

After some arguing over a spending bill laden with earmarks, which included some Republicans voting against the very pet projects they had added to it, Congress punted and passed a continuing resolution to fund the government into March.

With those issues resolved, momentum picked up. Republicans had earlier said they were just trying to "run out the clock" in the session to deny Obama any legislative victories, and now it seemed that everyone was playing beat the clock.

In the final days of the session, Congress also passed:

-- A repeal of the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" policy than banned openly gay Americans from serving in the armed forces.

-- A food safety bill that was thought to be dead several days ago that will increase the number of inspections of the nation's food supply chain and give the government greater enforcement power.

-- A strategic arms limitation treaty between the U.S. and Russia that will resume inspections of each country's nuclear arsenals and limit stockpiles to 1,550 warheads and 700 launchers.

-- A compromise bill on providing free medical treatment and compensation to first responders of the 9/11 attacks, which had been stalled over how it would be funded.

With the tax cut deal including provisions to expand the child tax credit, a Social Security tax break, college tuition tax credits, relief from the "marriage penalty" and an extension of investment tax rates, some analysts pointed out that Obama had, in essence, duped Republicans into getting a second economic stimulus program through Congress.

Obama, they said, might not be the lame duck he appeared to be on the day after the midterms. And bipartisanship might not be dead in Washington.

The 112th Congress convenes next week; guess we'll see then.

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