'Lame Duck' Congress Ends With Accomplishments
DAVID WELNA: I'm David Welna at the Capitol. Three and a half weeks after it really got going, the lame-duck session has ended, but not without leaving a sleigh-load of legislative presents under the tree, or as some would see it, lumps of coal.
Yesterday, as holiday-bound senators sprinted through approving a long-stalled annual defense policy bill, ratifying the new START treaty, and passing legislation to help 9/11 first responders cope with medical bills, the Senate's number two Republican, Jon Kyl, had had enough.
JON KYL: I am concerned about the precedent that we're setting here in the Senate, taking a lame-duck session to jam so many things through.
WELNA: Congress has indeed outdone itself in the final days of big Democratic majorities controlling both the House and Senate.
NORM ORNSTEIN: To me, hands down, this is the most productive lame-duck session since we started to have serious lame- duck sessions in the 1940s.
WELNA: That's Norm Ornstein. He's a long-time congressional observer at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank. Ornstein says this lame-duck session was a fitting climax for an amazingly productive 111th Congress.
ORNSTEIN: This is really a very big fat cherry on the top of the whipped cream of a quite nutritious filling, maybe even fat-producing, Sunday. Reid deserves a lot of credit for what was a masterful performance as leader.
WELNA: The Reid he refers to is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. During the lame-duck session, Reid kept the Senate working weekends and late into the night, and he buttonholed GOP colleagues to line up bipartisan support. Reid stepped outside the Senate chamber after the new START treaty's ratification yesterday, and I asked him how so much got done in so little time.
HARRY REID: I think the way we were able to get things done in a lame-duck is I truly believe that the message of the midterm elections, if nothing else, said we should work together. And I've been always willing to do that, but I think we found a little more receptiveness to do that after the election, and I think that's the reason why we were able to get things done. It was about(ph) people working together.
WELNA: Indeed, Republican senators broke ranks repeatedly in the lame-duck session to vote with Democrats and pass legislation they too supported. Maine's Susan Collins was one of them. She says the days are over when Democrats could pass bills on their own with the filibuster-proof majority.
SUSAN COLLINS: Now that we've picked up seats and the electorate has sent a strong message to Washington, I believe we'll see more bipartisan accomplishments, and that can only be good.
WELNA: Prior to the lame-duck session, Senate Republicans frequently closed ranks to block legislation. But in the last few weeks they've gone their own ways, especially some who are retiring, such as Utah's Bob Bennett.
BOB BENNETT: Obviously, there's a sense of freedom that comes with the fact that you're never going to have to face the voters again. But I voted my conscience.
LINDSEY GRAHAM: I call it capitulation.
WELNA: That's South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. As he put it to Fox News Radio earlier this week: Harry Reid has eaten our lunch.
GRAHAM: We did a lot of policy changes in the lame-duck, I think inconsistent with the major change in power. But that's what amazes me. And that's why I take my hat off to Harry. And when people say President Obama had a great two weeks, they're absolutely right. I'm the first one to - even though I don't like what happened, I do give them credit.
WELNA: Key to all the major legislation that got done in the lame-duck session was having at least one or two Republicans rallying behind each bill and encouraging fellow GOP senators to join them. Also key was the flat-out pace with which that legislation was taken up.
Congressional expert Ornstein says Senate Democrats were keenly aware that every day counted for finishing a pile of bills that had few prospects of passing in the next Congress.
ORNSTEIN: If you are in the majority and you know that starting in January the numbers turn dramatically against you, it concentrates your mind wonderfully.
WELNA: Democrats did not get everything they sought in the lame-duck session. Republicans blocked efforts to bring up the DREAM bill and legislation giving policemen and firefighters more collective bargaining rights. And only half of the 38 pending judicial nominations got approved. But what Democrats did get was far more than anyone thought possible, after the drubbing at the polls they took last month.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.