The Lame Duck Season

What last-minute damage can Democrats inflict?

Despite losing control of the House of Representatives and suffering a greatly diminished majority in the Senate, Democrats still momentarily hold on to the levers of power and are poised to complete some unfinished legislative business during the lame duck congressional session. The session is scheduled to convene on November 15, 2010, and what could transpire between then and the convening of the next Congress in January has both parties concerned. Prior to the election, Democrats signaled the reintroduction of a series of bills to be taken up during this period. At last count, there were close to 20 such bills to be considered.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) already promised in his own re-election campaign to reintroduce both the DREAM Act, a fast-track for young, undocumented aliens to achieve legal citizenship, and a vote on the repeal of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Both measures are firmly and deliberately attached as provisions in the Defense Reauthorization bill.

Additionally, while the election did nothing to advance the prospects for passage of a comprehensive energy bill, it has allowed room for smaller pieces of energy legislation to be approved. Specifically, a measure requiring electric utilities to provide 15% of their power from renewable sources like solar, wind or hydroelectric may find support. A measure requiring stricter offshore drilling controls was already passed earlier by the House and may now be brought up for a Senate vote.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also vowed to bring up a one-time $250 payout to retirees since Social Security benefits will not be increased next year. Also included on the Democratic agenda: the resurrection of Card Check, the extension of unemployment benefits, the imposition of duties on US imports, and a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Republicans had anticipated this Democratic strategy as far back as August. The fear was that Democrats would use the post-election period to rush through the rest of their unpopular legislative agenda before the convening of a new Republican-controlled Congress in January 2011.

This fear manifested itself in the introduction of a special resolution by the GOP that would have prohibited any major legislative initiative during a lame duck session. The resolution, however, was quickly defeated.

Ironically, despite the affirmation of their earlier fears, Republicans have hopes that the lame duck session will actually enable them to realize some of their own legislative goals. The most important of these objectives is the permanent extension of all the Bush Tax Cuts, which are currently set to expire on December 31, 2010.

While agreement to extend most of the cuts prior to the election had gained a modicum of bi-partisan support, President Obama and other progressive Democrats balked at extending cuts to top income earners (individuals making over $200,000 and families making over $250,000). Instead, Democrats, hoping to raise the issue as a class warfare campaign tactic, refused to bring the matter up for a floor vote, despite pressure from 31 members of their own caucus.

Now, faced with a stinging electoral rebuke and the risk of alienating the middle class through the imposition of new taxes, there are signs that Democrats are willing to extend the cuts on a temporary two-year basis to all income levels, a prospect inconceivable before Tuesday’s election.

While Republicans are also confident cap and trade will not be passed in its full form, they do hope to win some smaller victories on energy issues. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), for instance, is expected to follow up on his promise to call for a suspension of EPA regulations on greenhouse gas producers -- including coal -- for two years to give energy industries time to perfect clean technologies.

Any chance of either Republican or Democratic success during the lame duck period, however, has several unavoidable and seemingly insurmountable roadblocks. For Republicans, passage of any favorable legislative items, even with Democratic support, may still run into a presidential veto, with little to no chance for an override.

For Democrats, any passage of the remnants of their cherished legislative agenda is not likely to reach the White House for a presidential signature, but will die, instead, on the Senate floor. Democrats, already one vote short of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, will see that number increase with the addition of Illinois Senate Republican Mark Kirk, who will immediately fulfill the remaining 60 days left in Democrat Roland Burris’s term.

However, Republicans may be able to count on new allies in the remaining moderate Democrat senators, such as Nebraska’s Ben Nelson and Montana’s Jon Tester.

But Republicans cannot quite yet rest on these assumptions. 2010 has proven to be a very unconventional year and months still remain on its calendar. Perhaps between upcoming legislative breaks, Republicans will find respite in the congressional attention provided by the separate corruption cases of two of the most longstanding Democratic representatives, Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA), whose trials are scheduled to be held November 15 and November 29, respectively.

Speculation aside, at least what we can assume is that any real and meaningful legislative ventures will begin in earnest come January 3, 2011, when new House Speaker John Boehner announces the introduction of the Republican legislative agenda and political concerns officially shift over to the Democratic side of the aisle.

Frank Crimi is a freelance writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog, or contact him at [email protected].