It took arm twisting, deal making, and working right up until Christmas, but this lame duck Congress turned out to be one of the more productive ones in recent history. After seeing his popularity decline and his party get wallopped at the polls, Obama pulled out some legislative victories and managed to regain a little swagger before the new year. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Congress passed a tax cut package which extended the Bush-era tax cuts, while also extending unemployment insurance and slashing the payroll tax through 2011. Democrats found the Republican votes they needed to repeal the military's ban on openly gay service members, and to ratify the New START treaty, an arms control agreement with Russia. Despite some significant legal and procedural hurdles, Congress managed to pass a bill which updates the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory powers, and it also approved a bill providing healthcare to the first responders at the World Trade Center on 9/11. The Senate failed, however, to pass the DREAM Act, an immigration bill which has languished in Congress for nearly a decade.
The lame duck session capped off what was an acrimonious, but also very productive, two years for Congress. "I think it's fair to say this has been the most productive post-election period we've had in decades, and it comes on the heels of the most productive two years we've had in generations," Obama said during a press conference. Of course, during much of this time, the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But since early this year, they've lost two seats to special elections, and the president was forced to work more closely with Republicans to get his agenda through. "The tax deal was probably the largest bipartisan accomplishment of this Congress," says Michael Franc, a legislative expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Obama did reach across the aisle, and he did touch a couple of the third rails which antagonize his base." Franc says that this could show Obama's strategy moving forward as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives next year.
There's one other significant measure which Congress wasn't able to pass: the 2011 budget. After having stalled the funding bills until after the election, Democrats found their backs against the wall as they tried to pass an omnibus appropriations bill for the 2011 fiscal year. Republicans objected to billions of dollars in earmarks contained in the bill, and Democratic leadership ultimately relented, passing instead a temporary measure which will freeze funding for most government departments and will only last until March 4. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]
The concession could come back to haunt Obama next year. The lack of a formal appropriations bill limits the ability of federal agencies to start new programs, or even to shut down old ones. More significantly, it will set up an early showdown between the Obama administration and GOP legislators, who will likely insist on budget cuts in any funding bill. Franc notes that this early battle gives newly elected conservative lawmakers a chance to flex their muscles and insist on scaling back the scope of government. "It's a silver platter you're handing them," Franc says.
While this round of accomplishments gives Obama a boost after a tough year, he'll need all the momentum he can muster to get through another year which will likely be even tougher.