Obama Hails 'Turbo-Charged' Lame-Duck Session

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Before heading to Hawaii for the holidays, President Obama signed a law to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, and won ratification of the new START Treaty. The president's last planned news conference of the year was delivered with a victorious tone.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Having won passage of bill after bill, President Obama is in Hawaii this morning. He took the trip after an unexpectedly busy period in Washington.

WERTHEIMER: Even though his party was crushed in midterm elections, the White House claimed many victories in the lame-duck session of Congress.

INSKEEP: Part of the reason was the Democrats still had their big majorities.

WERTHEIMER: And part of the reason was that key Republicans joined the Democrats.

INSKEEP: We begin our coverage with NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: The last time the president held a news conference was just three weeks ago, and he seemed like a different person. Back then he had just rolled out a tax deal and the liberal base was in revolt. At that podium, Mr. Obama seemed bristly and defensive. Last night he was relaxed and clearly relishing his victories.

BARACK OBAMA: A lot of folks in this town predicted that after the midterm elections, Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock. And instead this has been a season of progress for the American people.

SHAPIRO: Minutes earlier, more than two-thirds of the Senate had passed the president's top national security priority - an arms treaty with Russia. Just that morning, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise by signing into law the repeal of don't ask, don't tell. And there were many other legislative victories besides: a tax cut agreement, a food safety law, a child nutrition bill, health benefits for 9/11 first responders, and more.

OBAMA: So I think it's fair to say that 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 that we've had in generations.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Obama framed the turbo-charged lame-duck session as a fulfillment of his often repeated promise of bipartisanship. His message was: Despite what the naysayers will tell you, the goal of rising above petty politics is, in fact, achievable.

OBAMA: If there's any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it's that we are not doomed to endless gridlock. We've shown in the wake of the November elections that we have the capacity not only to make progress, but to make progress together.

SHAPIRO: There was some gridlock, though. The President said his greatest disappointment in the lame-duck session was that the DREAM Act failed to overcome a Republican filibuster. That bill would have provided a path to citizenship to students or service members who were brought to the country illegally as young children. Mr. Obama said he gets letters from kids who would be covered by the bill.

OBAMA: I'm willing to serve my country, I'm willing to fight for this country, I want to go to college and better myself, and I'm at risk of deportation. And it is heartbreaking. That can't be who we are.

SHAPIRO: The president promised to re-introduce the DREAM Act next year. And he said he'll fight for a broader immigration overhaul too. It's not clear how he plans to get a more ambitious plan through a Congress where Republicans are stronger than they were this year. But he said he's determined.

OBAMA: One thing I hope people have seen during this lame duck, I am persistent.

SHAPIRO: And he cribbed a line from Spider-Man to talk about why he thinks Republicans may be more eager to cross the aisle next year than they were for the last two years.

OBAMA: My sense is the Republicans recognize that with greater power is going to come greater responsibility. And some of the progress that I think we saw in the lame duck was a recognition on their part that people are going to be paying attention to what they're doing as well as what I'm doing and what the Democrats in Congress are doing.

SHAPIRO: The president also seemed to acknowledge that he has a responsibility to be less partisan. When a reporter asked whether Mr. Obama stands by his election-season refrain that Republicans are drinking a Slurpee while Democrats dig the economy out of a ditch, the president laughed, then he got serious.

OBAMA: The American people are driving the car. They're the ones who are going to be making an assessment as to whether we're putting in place policies that are working for them. And both parties are going to be held accountable and I'm going to be held accountable if we take a wrong turn on that front.

SHAPIRO: There are major fights ahead. President Obama wants to reform the tax code next year and overhaul the education system. The prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open, and more than a dozen of President Obama's judicial nominees are still being blocked in the Senate. But those fights can wait for the New Year. For now, the President plans to enjoy Hawaii.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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