Lame-Duck Session Brings Out Yuletide Nastiness

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Many are counting the days until Christmas. But Congressional Democrats have a different countdown going on: in 20 days they relinquish their House majority and five Senate seats to Republicans. Democrats are scrambling to pass as many bills as they can, and that's made for a testy holiday season on Capitol Hill.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Don Gonyea.

Many are counting the days until Christmas. But congressional Democrats have a different countdown. In 20 days they relinquish their House majority and five Senate seats to Republicans. So Democrats are now scrambling to pass as many bills as they can.

As NPR's David Welna reports, that's made for a testy holiday season on Capitol Hill.

DAVID WELNA: The yuletide nastiness began earlier this week with a remark from the Senate's number two Republican, Arizona's Jon Kyl. He complained it was impossible to do all the things Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wanted to do in the coming days without, in Kyl's words, disrespecting one of the two holiest holidays for Christians.

Reid shot back yesterday on the Senate floor saying he did not need to hear what he called Kyl's sanctimonious lectures to remind him of what Christmas means. Reid blamed Republicans for Congress's lame-duck session lurching into overtime.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): These are additional days of wasted time we could be using to pass legislation to get home for the holidays. Yet some of my Republican colleagues have the nerve to whine about having to stay and actually do the work the American people pay us to do.

WELNA: Kyl responded at a news conference.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): I didn't really appreciate leader's remarks just a few moments ago on the Senate floor when criticizing those of us who have taken this position as whiney.

WELNA: Congress, added the Senate's GOP leader, Mitch McConnell, has only two things to do.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): We ought to pass the tax legislation and keep the lights on. Everything else, Mr. President, can wait.

WELNA: The Senate did pass legislation yesterday extending the expiring Bush-era tax cuts by a wide bipartisan margin of 81 to 19. But it has yet to pass a measure to keep the government's light on past Saturday, when a stopgap funding bill expires. Democrats want it to be a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that includes about $8 billion in senators' pet projects, known as earmarks. But there's resistance.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): The bill is loaded up with pork projects and it shouldn't get a vote.

WELNA: That's South Dakota Republican John Thune. I pointed out that he'd requested more than $100 million worth of earmarks himself.

Sen. THUNE: Well, those projects were projects that were vetted. Those were projects that we - I mean I support those projects.

WELNA: Thune and most other Senate Republicans recently vowed to swear off earmarks for the next two years. But they may end up getting their earmarks in the omnibus since some Republicans plan to join most Democrats to pass it. Meanwhile, nine Senate Republicans voted yesterday with all the Democrats to consider the stalled new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Some Republicans objected, including Utah's Orrin Hatch.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): To ram this through at this crucial time of the year when we have a lot of other things we have to worry about as well, I think it's just not right.

WELNA: Earlier, Senate Republicans blocked the big defense bill that contains a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that bans openly gay service members. So yesterday the House passed a stand-alone bill to reverse that policy and sent it to the Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): By acting again, it is my hope that we will encourage the Senate to take long overdue action.

WELNA: The Senate, in turn, lobbed the tax cut package it approved over to the House, which is set to vote on it today - to the dismay of Oregon House Democrat Peter DeFazio.

Representative PETER DEFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon): Last week the Democratic caucus spoke almost unanimously against this. And this week, under pressure from the White House and the Republican leader of the Senate, it appears our leadership is attempting to avoid our wishes and bring this bill forward without major changes. It will be a disaster for the American people.

WELNA: Enacting that bipartisan bill could be one of the last gasps of a decidedly partisan 111th Congress.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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