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.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), for example, is hoping to get a vote on a House-passed measure aimed at health care benefits for 9/11 first responders, while Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and others are pushing for a vote to delay implementation of Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gases, sources said. Some Democrats are also pushing to hold a vote on the Defense Department authorization bill, which includes a repeal of DADT.
As he was fighting for political survival in his own re-election campaign this year, Reid also has promised to hold a vote on the DREAM Act in the lame-duck session. The measure, aimed at giving illegal immigrant children a path to citizenship if they go to college or join the military, has been a favorite of Hispanic leaders, and Latino voters last week helped put Reid over the top in his race against tea-party-backed candidate Sharron Angle (R).
But on a conference call among Senate Democrats last week, centrists such as Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) urged leaders to keep the agenda for the lame duck limited to must-pass items such as a measure to keep the government funded and extensions of tax cuts for individuals and businesses. A broader agenda that would have no chance of passage next year under a narrower Democratic Senate majority and a House GOP majority will only inflame an already angry electorate, Nelson said in a phone interview last week.
“There was an admonition from several [Members] to understand what happened and not be in denial about what happened,” Nelson said.
Senate Democrats on Friday were trying to determine the best time to caucus about the lame-duck agenda. Aides said they might have another conference call next week or wait until next week when all Senators are back in town.
A spending measure or continuing resolution, keeping the government running and time-sensitive extensions of tax cuts are arguably the only measures that are considered “must-pass,” aides acknowledged.
Democrats declined to act on extensions of Bush-era tax cuts before the elections, but many are still wedded to President Barack Obama’s proposal to let tax cuts for upper-income households expire while extending breaks for couples making $250,000 or less ($200,000 for individuals). However, Obama already has signaled a willingness to compromise on that.
“There wasn’t an appetite to fix that problem before we left, and given the Republicans’ strengthened hand after the elections, this is a fight that will have to wait until next year,” another Senate Democratic aide predicted.
Indeed, McConnell made clear on CNN on Thursday that Republicans are unlikely to entertain any proposals that extend tax breaks for only middle-income people.
“There’s a bipartisan majority for extending the current tax rates beyond the end of this year,” McConnell said. “If [Obama] wants to do some kind of extension for a period of time, we can fight out in the future the next step. But the important thing right now is to understand that we ought not to be raising taxes on anybody.”
As for the looming fight on spending, Democrats said the fight would likely be kicked into early next year, but it was unclear whether that means funding levels would be frozen, cut or even increased for certain departments or programs.