The 111th Congress drew to a close Wednesday night after a final burst of legislative activity provided a capstone to one of the most productive and controversial sessions in history.
After the midterm elections cost Democrats the House, party leaders and the White House pushed hard in the lame-duck session to eke out the last major legislative victories they are likely to see for some time. The House recessed sine die at 6 p.m. Wednesday, with the Senate following suit several hours later. The 112th Congress will begin Jan. 5.
Like much of the rest of the 111th Congress, the final weeks and days ran staff and lawmakers ragged, although they stopped two days shy of last year’s Christmas Eve session, when the Senate passed a health care overhaul.
President Barack Obama singled out the failure of an immigration measure known as the DREAM Act as his biggest disappointment of the lame duck. He said he would continue to push for the bill, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants if they join the military or go to college.
Both parties had several final victories to take home.
After suffering bruising defeats at the hands of Republicans in fights over extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and an omnibus spending bill, Democrats finished the lame duck with a string of high-profile legislative wins, including repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service members, a health care bill for Sept. 11 first responders, ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, a food safety overhaul and a defense authorization bill.
The push capped the 111th Congress’ historic accomplishments, including a $787 billion stimulus package passed in February 2009, when the Dow Jones industrial average was mired below 8,000, and the sweeping health care and financial regulation overhauls in 2010.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will soon lose her gavel, said she was proud that Congressional scholars have recognized the 111th Congress as among the most productive in history, noting that major bills, including the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, were passed at the very end of the session.
“We came here to do a job,” the California Democrat said. “We got much of it done. It all relates to solving problems for America’s families, and we think that the agenda that we passed does just that. We’re very, very proud of it. ... Of course there’s always more to be done, and as long as the American people have a high unemployment rate, as families are looking for jobs, as people have uncertainty about their children’s education, about their own economic security, our work is far from over. So I look forward to working with the new majority to solve the problems for the American people.”
Pelosi wielded her gavel for the last time on the Sept. 11 health care bill, which passed 206-60 with more than a third of the House skipping the Wednesday vote.
In keeping with the marathon nature of the 111th Congress, the vote was held open for more than an hour. Several House sources indicated that the wait was for Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), but her office denied the vote was held exclusively for her. A spokesperson said that she was returning to Washington after dealing with a family issue and that several other Members also arrived at the end of the vote.
Senate Republicans had their share of success in the 111th Congress as well, even with Democrats controlling both chambers and the White House. They regularly exercised strict discipline to either block bills or extract deep concessions from Democrats, a strategy that has served Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) well. It was on full display during the lame duck, when Republicans were able to essentially dictate the terms of the $858 billion tax cut bill and when Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) was able to extract last-minute changes to the Sept. 11 first responders bill. McConnell’s evisceration of the omnibus appropriations bill, meanwhile, sets the stage for a showdown on spending between an ascendant GOP and Obama early next year.
But Republicans also suffered losses, including the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and START votes. McConnell was unable to rally enough GOP opposition, or loyalty to his office, to block those measures.
As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sent his colleagues on their way Wednesday, it was with mixed emotions that some Members departed the chamber.
Following the vote to ratify START, Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and others who are retiring or were defeated Nov. 2 lingered on the floor to say farewell to their colleagues and a building that some, like Dodd, have called home for decades.
The loss was apparent on the faces of many who won’t return for the 112th Congress, including Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.). He will return home to an uncertain political future as a possible challenger to Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2012.
LeMieux, whose desk in the Senate is closest to the chamber’s east door, sat for several long, quiet minutes in his chair, looking on as clerks and pages prepared to end the session and his colleagues said goodbye to one another.
For others, it seemed as if escape from Washington couldn’t come soon enough: Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) all missed Wednesday’s START ratification vote.
One freshman Senator was having difficulty fitting in to his new surroundings. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who skipped votes Sunday to attend a holiday party in Illinois with donors and who mocked Reid on the floor last week, continued to ruffle the chamber’s genteel feathers Wednesday. First Kirk attempted to make a “perfecting amendment” to a START proposal authored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) that was already the subject of a unanimous consent agreement.
Although Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) quickly shot down Kirk’s amendment, the most junior member of the chamber wasn’t through, taking control of the floor to make a long speech on his opposition to the treaty and eating into time that had been allotted for Kerry, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.).
With a host of new Senators and an enormous class of freshman Republicans in the House in January, that sort of impudence will be the least of the Democrats’ worries.
Kathleen Hunter and Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.