Congressional Democrats are divided over whether to pursue an ambitious agenda in the lame-duck session that begins next week or avoid the partisan fights and go home for the holidays.
Senate Republicans have been forceful in saying the results of the elections — in which the GOP took over the House and strengthened its Senate minority — indicate that voters want Democrats to shelve their priorities.
House Democrats have been unable to focus on their lame-duck agenda because of the turmoil at the top. Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will still be in charge for the lame duck, Democrats have not yet fully embraced the idea that she wants to retain control in the minority.
But Senate Democrats already have begun to agitate about possible agenda items, with some lawmakers pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring up controversial items such as the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays, while others say Congress should do as little as possible and start anew in the 112th Congress with duly elected Members. Members who have been defeated for re-election can still vote in the lame duck.
“We need to have additional discussions about what exactly can be done in a lame duck,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “We’ve got a long list of things that we want to do and not a lot of time to do it.”
The aide said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “threw down some very striking markers [after the elections], so it remains to be seen what can get done.”
McConnell told reporters that it was incumbent on Democrats to move toward the GOP, not the other way around.
Not only are Senate Republicans feeling emboldened by their six-seat pickup Tuesday, but their current 41-Member minority will gain another lawmaker during the lame duck. Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (Ill.) also won a special election to fill out the term of appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D), and Kirk is expected to be sworn in in time for votes on tax cuts and spending. Two Democrats — Sens.-elect Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Chris Coons (Del.) -— also won special elections and will be sworn in during the lame duck.
Besides having to negotiate with a cocky minority, Reid also has to address the desires of his Members to have legislation considered while the margins still favor Democrats. After all, Reid will be operating with a 58-42 majority until January, when his margin will be reduced to 53-47.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.