Ideological divides ahead in new Congress
December 24th, 2010
12:13 PM ET
10 years ago

Ideological divides ahead in new Congress

(CNN) - Congressional Democrats and Republicans worked together grudgingly during an unexpectedly productive lame-duck session, clearing several major pieces of legislation, while setting aside concerns that partisan animosity and legislative gridlock would define the short post-election work period.

In doing so, lawmakers from each party - and President Obama, too - can claim legislative successes and political momentum heading into the new Congress, which begins in a just a few days.

"It was a season of progress," Obama said happily Wednesday.

Shortly after the November 2 election, in which Republicans recaptured control of the House and boosted their numbers in the Senate, congressional leadership aides on both sides told CNN they expected the worst from the opposing party as the lame duck convened to wrap up a long list of unfinished business.

Obama "will go into campaign mode and try to make us look evil," a GOP aide cautioned.

"Many Republicans appear to be opposed to the very idea of coming here to legislate," a Democratic aide complained.

But in the end, bipartisanship prevailed as a mix of lawmakers came together to pass a major tax cut bill, a trimmed-down government spending bill, a significant nuclear arms reduction treaty, and the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" law, which appeared almost certain to fail before suddenly passing.

"This Congress, with the capstone of the lame duck, was one of the most productive historic Congresses we've had," said a spirited Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democratic leader, after the final vote of the session. "People who think the Senate doesn't work should look at the last three weeks."

Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina even complimented Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid for everything that was accomplished during the nearly six-week stint.

"I admire good lawyering and good politicking," he said. "I'm amazed at what they were able to do. Hats off to Harry."

Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ticked through a list of bills that passed right before Congress adjourned, proudly touting Democratic achievements. But looking ahead, Pelosi, who rarely worked with Republicans during her tenure, struck a bipartisan note, pledging to reach out to the new GOP majority in 2011.

"As long as the American people have high unemployment rates, families who are looking for jobs, as people have uncertainty about their children's education, about their own economic security, our work is far from over," Pelosi said.

Republicans won key victories on taxes and spending

With extending the expiring Bush tax cuts as his party's top legislative priority, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell worked quietly behind the scenes to cut a deal with Vice President Joe Biden. In addition to extending the rate cuts for all income groups, the deal included a reduced estate tax that infuriated liberals, especially in the House. In return, Biden got Republicans to agree to extend unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, a key win for Democrats.

Ultimately, an attempt by House Democratic leaders to scale back the estate tax measure failed, but their very public spat with the White House foreshadows a bumpy road ahead for the relationship between Obama and House Democrats. The reality is that under GOP control in the House, and with smaller ranks, House Democrats will have little to no leverage if Obama again negotiates with newly empowered Republicans in the next Congress.

"The tax package was 76 percent Republicans, 12 percent Democratic policy," McConnell told CNN. "I think the overwhelming Republican majorities in the House and Senate indicate that our members thought it was the right thing to do."

On spending, Republicans blocked a massive government funding bill that was advanced by Democrats and stuffed with pet projects for lawmakers from both parties. Republicans unified only after Reid said some Republicans were "hypocrites" for apparently seeking earmarks and secretly hoping the bill would pass, while publicly opposing it.

In the end, Reid was wrong as a Republicans held together to force passage of an earmark-free, short-term government funding bill. Because the funding bill expires in March 2011, the new Republican-controlled House will be able to exert major influence on spending levels next year.

Democrats claim major victories on new START, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"

Repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" law that barred gays from openly serving in the military appeared doomed when Republicans blocked consideration of the defense funding bill that included it. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Iraq war veteran Rep Patrick Murphy, D-Pennsylvania, crafted a stand-alone bill, working with Senate proponents Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Republican Susan Collins of Maine. Their strategy to pass the bill unattached to other policy issues caught opponents of the repeal flat-footed. Comparing their strategy to military tactics in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lieberman praised a legislative "surge" for their success.

The repeal was a key victory for progressives, who considered it one of their top priorities before the Democratic-controlled Congress concluded.

Obama made clear that his top foreign policy goal for the lame duck was the passage of the new START nuclear reduction pact. However, with the top two Senate Republican leaders opposing it, he faced a daunting task getting enough GOP votes to reach the 67-vote threshold required to approve treaties. Republicans raised substantive concerns with the treaty - mostly about whether it would prevent the U.S. from deploying a missile defense program - but also were angry that Democrats and the White House were jamming a flawed treaty through the Senate without enough time to debate it before Christmas. Democrats stood firmly and, with the help of heavy lobbying by Obama and top administration officials, were able to win over 13 Republicans to approve the treaty.

Other significant bills were approved, too, including: a far-reaching food safety bill; a child nutrition bill championed by first lady Michelle Obama; and long-stalled funding for government settlements with Native Americans and black farmers.

As they raced to get out of town for Christmas, Democratic and Republican senators reached an 11th-hour deal to create a health care fund for 9/11 first responders. The House approved the bill in its last vote of the year.

One priority of Democratic leaders, an immigration measure known as the DREAM Act, was narrowly blocked when a group of Republicans and Democrats opposed passing the bill unless it was tied to broader immigration reform that included more border security.

Republican Collins, a key moderate who often votes with Democrats, said the American people want to see their elected leaders work together.

"Once the elections are over, they don't want us to retreat to our two corners and fight. They want us to work together as Americans," she said. "I believe we showed that we could do that in this session."

Democrat Schumer agreed and said the lame-duck session "sets a great tone for next year."

"Here's what sometimes people forget: We have our ideological differences and everyone wants to win in politics. But legislating, when you succeed in getting things done, is why we're here. And I think that's true from the most conservative Republican to the most liberal Democrat," he said.

What's next in the new Congress?

When the 112th Congress is sworn in on January 5, a Republican-controlled House and a smaller Democratic majority in the Senate will probably make the productive lame-duck session a distant memory. Divided government and more ideologically driven parties on both sides of the aisle could mean Congress moves quickly to a state of gridlock and partisan wrangling.

Incoming House Speaker John Boehner takes the gavel from Pelosi and leads a much larger and more conservative House Republican conference, determined to slash federal spending and reduce the size of government.

Boehner has vowed to make the "people's House" more transparent, and the first order of business will be passing a new set of rules for the House. In a nod to many new GOP freshmen with ties to the Tea Party, the Constitution will be read aloud on the House floor on the second day of the new session, and all new bills must meet a test that they are constitutional.

To stress the new majority's commitment to spending cuts, Boehner pledged one of the first votes next year will be to cut the House's own budget by 5%, which GOP aides say will save $25 billion.

Boehner also said the House GOP will roll back federal spending to 2008 levels, and he has promised weekly votes on spending cuts. When pressed for specific programs the GOP would cut, the speaker-designate declined to name any, but insisted right before Congress adjourned, "I will tell you we are going to cut spending."

Even if House Republicans have the votes to pass bills that reduce the government's discretionary budget, these probably won't clear the Senate to make it to the president's desk. And while scaling back spending to 2008 figures would save $100 billion in the first year, this falls far short of making any significant dent in the massive federal deficit.

A bipartisan panel issued recommendations this month to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion, but many of the controversial proposals - such as raising the retirement age, eliminating a popular tax credit and imposing a new tax on gasoline - will be tough to enact. The group failed to muster enough support from its own members to force Congress to vote on these recommendations. But given the public outrage about deficit spending, there will be pressure on both parties to show they are serious about tackling the issue.

House Republicans plan to follow through on their campaign pledge to repeal the new health care law, and they plan a vote on a bill early in the new session. But with a Democratic Senate, this effort won't succeed. Instead, Republicans will use Congress' purse strings to choke off funding to implement the health care law. They will also move piecemeal bills to repeal key parts of the reform, such as the mandate requiring people to carry health insurance.

While many predict the new class of Senate Republicans will make it harder to get the GOP to work with Democratic leaders or the White House, Reid said including Republicans will be essential to passing legislation.

"I think that we're going to be obligated to make sure that [Senate GOP Leader] Mitch McConnell believes he's part of the process," Reid said.

And the Senate majority leader was more hopeful about the prospects of getting things done in the new Congress, saying, "Divided government does not mean you can't get things done. Legislation is the art of compromise. And when you have divided government, that's when you have to compromise."

Filed under: Congress
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Steven

    They really need to tackle tax reform. Also if they would lower the retirement age to 60 this would create a many jobs for the young people looking for work. Older American that don't need to work, need to pass the torch on to the next generation. There will be major cuts across the board in the coming year. The baby boomer generation needs to go into protest mode on protecting there social security trust fund. Also, our leader need to stop being bought off by the wallsteet fat cats.

    December 24, 2010 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  2. Captian Canada

    As a self declaired moderate I have little or no patience for the rantings of the left or the right. neither side has the answers that work. The only ting that these nuts bring to the table are a hatred of those who don't agree & an unexceptable belief that they are right. In Europe we se that socailism has created a fiscal mess that kills innovation. In the US we have The Free Marketers creating a small number of people who have everything & alot of people who have nothing. When will the majority who understand that each side has some of the answers but only when are they combined do the majority benefit. Ideology is an excuse for people who can't think on their own

    December 24, 2010 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  3. GI Joe

    I agree that tax reform is needed. Cut out the thousands and thousands of pages of loopholes and "hidden laws".

    December 24, 2010 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  4. Anonymous

    Just veto any CRAZY Legislation these Corporate Shills come up with Mr. President. They had 8 years to destroy every aspect of OUR economy and I'LL be damned if we let them do it all over again.Hold your position Mr President and we will be out in droves to re-ellect you.

    December 24, 2010 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |

    The GOP is delighted with the political-bait the LAME-DUCK-DEMS concluded the end of this Congress.
    "HURRAY" they say to Pres Obamas' victories in the lame-duck session.............Really..? Bills-signed were all
    of a political nature and none have any impact to improve the economy nor!

    December 24, 2010 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  6. one voice

    Just veto any CRAZY Legislation these Corporate Shills come out with Mr President. I'll be damned if we let these same folks DESTROY every aspect of our economy again SIR. Stand your ground and WE will be out in droves to give you a second well deserved term. MOVING THE COUNTRY FORWARD. 🙂

    December 24, 2010 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  7. Squigman

    It's time for the people in the center to be heard. The extreme right, and the extreme left have all but ruined the nation. If this new and supposed better congress and senate dont come to terms with the fact that the nations stability, and might are entwined with a healthy middle class, then they too should be expelled from the offices they so strived for. It's time for common sense to take center stage, not ideologic BS..

    December 24, 2010 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  8. vic nashville tn

    Last two weeks congress did good job I hope they will continue bipartisanship in 2011

    We are tired of blame game and name calling

    May be FOX news like name calling they can pick one word to create story

    December 24, 2010 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  9. Geoffrey Sperl

    @Steven: I doubt anyone is against tax reform, it's just a question of how to reform it. As for lowering the retirement age: Plenty of Baby Boomers lost a lot of their retirement savings in the past few years. The equity in their houses is gone, the stock market plunges made their retirement funds dwindle... I agree with you that moving the Boomers out would open up jobs for younger workers, but lowering that age would actually end up creating a lower-class senior population the likes of which we have never seen (considering how large that generation is), which would, in-turn, place more stress on the Social Security system.

    December 24, 2010 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  10. D, Bunker

    We have "seen" no such thing, "Captian Canada". If you in fact "see" Europe in such a state then you need to see a doctor about your hallucinations. Europe is way ahead of the US in terms of education, health care and Germany's automakers are so busy they're running shifts over the holidays instead of taking the usual break,

    While you seem to understand the problem with the "Free Marketers" you also seem to have fallen into the "false comparison" trap the propagandists like to play. I suggest you research more about what's really going on in Europe. You may also be interested in how Iceland is recovering nicely after REFUSING to play the bankers' bailout game.

    December 24, 2010 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  11. Monster Zero

    Liberal ideology: Feed me, bathe me, take care of me, pay me for nothing...
    Conservative ideology: Get out of my way so I can take care of myself...

    December 24, 2010 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  12. Steve (not Steven

    Steven, even though you are a member of the Steve Brotherhood, I am going to have to disagree with you on lowering the retirement age. In fact that is the last thing we should do. The average life expectancy of an American male is somewhere around 76 years; a large percentage of the population does not have the necessary wealth to live off for 16 years. If they were to retire then they would have to be supported by the people who kept working, reducing earned income and inevitably making the whole system unsustainable. A better idea would be to create more jobs so young AND old can work. The absolute best and easiest way to do this would be to completely gut the corporate tax. For more on the effects of corporate tax rates and job growth please read up on the economy of Ireland on Wikipedia. Yes, Ireland is in some serious financial trouble right now, but that is not because of their corporate tax rate.

    End rant. Merry Christmas!

    December 24, 2010 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  13. Outside Observer

    The deal was the Repubs will get Bush tax cut extension and estate tax break for the wealthy, the Dems START, DADT, extended unemployment benefit, health benefit for 911 first responders, federal funding until March 2011. Notice who are the beneficiaries of this deal, Repubs' – the WEALTHY, Dems' – people and government. This is clear who the parties' work for. Unfortunately, DREAM act was not part of it. The Repubs would have said the Dems are getting too much and the Dems thought so. The DREAM act is one of the battles in the next Congress.

    They just put the drama that unless the Dems pass the Bush tax cut extension, Repubs will not agree on anything and once the tax cut extension has passed then followed the passing of the rest. Good stuff, eh?

    Obama would have said, "if you will not give me what I wanted, there will be no tax cut extension for everyone, and I am willing to do a political suicide" and the murmuring in the negotiation room began. The president must be very serious. The Repubs would be in trouble if they can't deliver on their promise to the wealthy and they gave in.

    December 24, 2010 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  14. GonzoinHouston

    Something doesn't add up. The GOP was able to obstruct and delay these things all year, and now a month before the republicans take the House and increase seats in the Senate, they suddenly start passing them? When strange things happen in DC there's usually a back room deal involved, but what was traded? The only thing the GOP really got was that tax cut for the top 2%. They shot down a cut for 98%, remember? Out of nowhere the democrats got a cut in the payroll taxes, 13 months of extended unemployment benefits, DADT, START, and enough fine-print goodies to constitute a de facto second stimulus bill. Add it up and the democrats wound up with a very successful year crammed into a lame-duck session. How come?

    The only thing I can figure out is that the republicans, really, REALLY, wanted that tax cut for the richest 2%. I think this settles the question of the republicans' real priorities.

    December 24, 2010 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  15. CAW in MD

    Boy, that's why I want to pay Congressmen - so they can sit around and listen to somebody read a document that each of them have already read, just for the symbolism of it all.

    If lawmakers take only one thing from the lame duck session that just ended, it's that Americans are tired of symbolic gestures like reading the frickin' Constitution. You're there to solve America's problems. Reading the Constitution aloud in no way, shape, or form solves a single problem, creates a single job, or does anything but waste time. Ditch the symbolism, and start dealing with the reality and substance of the world.

    December 24, 2010 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |