The elections are over, but the 111th Congress isn't finished just yet. Next week, Congress will enter a two-month lame-duck session during which it will attempt to sort through what is left of the year's legislative agenda.
At one point, this was controversial; in August, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia warned against Democratic plans to use a lame-duck session for nefarious ends (passing card check!) and forced a vote on a resolution that would keep Congress from entering into a lame-duck session. The resolution failed, but the anti-"lame duck" meme persisted, thanks to continued opposition from conservative groups like FreedomWorks and conservative leaders like Newt Gingrich.
Of course, this outrage is a little silly; lame-duck sessions aren't mandatory, but they are a fairly a regular feature of government, with a total of 17 since 1940 (or one after every two elections), and five since the beginning of last decade. Most have been short sessions dealing with a few mundane items -- but that isn't a rule. Over the past decade, for example, lame-duck sessions have been fairly productive, with Congress reauthorizing bills -- like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- and passing new ones.
This session promises to be both productive and a little more high-profile than usual. In addition to passing routine items like the Medicare "doc fix" -- done to prevent the recurring 23 percent slash in Medicare reimbursements -- and a host of tax credits and tax cuts, Congress will take action on at least four items, each hotly contested by Republicans and of particular interest to progressives.
The new START treaty between the United States and Russia needs ratification. The modest agreement -- signed in April by President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev -- would reinstate ground inspections and reduce each country's deployed nuclear arsenal by 30 percent. The treaty has wide support from the national-security community as well as support from two former secretaries of state and a number of former lawmakers. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave its approval in September -- with three Republican votes -- but it remains unclear whether Democrats can attract enough GOP senators to reach the 67 votes needed for ratification, especially given the price some Republicans (like Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina) are asking for their approval: a federal commitment to a national missile-defense system.
Beyond that, Democrats need to pass the annual defense bill, which failed in September because of the inclusion of a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the military's policy toward gay service members. Also on the table is the DREAM Act, which would provide a path toward permanent legal residency for the noncitizen children of undocumented immigrants. Progressive groups have spent months fighting for the DREAM Act, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promises action, in large part because he owes his re-election to overwhelmingly Democratic turnout among Nevada's Hispanic voters. DADT is a different, more depressing story. While Reid says that he still supports repeal, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain are in talks to strip the measure from the defense bill, leaving repeal without a legislative vehicle. Given the wide popularity of repeal -- and the injustice of DADT -- Democratic failure here would come close to inexcusable and would almost certainly incur the (justified) wrath of progressive and gay-rights activists.
On the spending side, Democrats are faced with a trio of tough votes. First, 2 million Americans are scheduled to lose unemployment benefits at the end of December, barring congressional action. Reauthorization should be a no-brainer in a recession with near double-digit unemployment. But this isn't a sane country, and Republicans have already held up the extension of joblessness benefits on two separate occasions. And despite the importance of extending such support to help families and improve the economy, there is no guarantee that Democrats will find enough votes from the GOP -- or within their own caucus -- to break a likely filibuster.
On top of that, there is the looming fight over extending the Bush tax cuts. Even in his current contrite state (see his recent CBS interview), President Obama has stood firm on his insistence that Congress extend tax cuts for the middle class and scrap them for earners making more than $250,000. To that end, the Democratic plan is to break the cuts into separate packages, forcing Republicans to take one vote on middle-class cuts and another, politically difficult vote on cuts for the wealthy. Of course, Republicans aren't going to roll over and have introduced their own package to permanently extend the tax cuts. Circumstances have not been kind to Democrats on this fight, and with the economy struggling and the wind at their backs, Republicans are in a surprisingly good position to win this one and transform a possible victory for Democrats into a political train wreck of their own making.
Finally, Democrats need to fund the government. Congress has yet to pass a single spending bill, and without some kind of a stopgap, the government will shut down at the beginning of the next fiscal year. In normal years, this wouldn't be a big issue, since everyone tends to agree that the government shouldn't actually shut down. But this incoming crop of Tea Party and conservative radicals has very different ideas about the role of government -- namely, it shouldn't exist -- and might pressure the GOP's lame-duck minority to stand tall against Democratic efforts to fund the basic operations of the federal government. Indeed, Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, was unwilling to rule out a government shutdown when he appeared on Fox News Sunday. The consequences of a shutdown would be terrible, to say the least, but Republicans have pulled this stunt before -- in 1995, during the first year of their congressional majority -- and there's a very good chance that it will happen again.
If everything goes in the right direction, this lame-duck session could be among the most productive. Given the sheer level of Republican confidence, however, that is almost certain not to happen. So, if you were worried (or hopeful) that the political circus would break for the holidays, circumstances are about to ensure the opposite.