Obama Closes Lame-Duck Session With Victories

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro joins host Scott Simon to talk about the last-minute Democratic victories of the lame duck session and what awaits when Congress returns in January.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This week, Congress wrapped up its lame-duck session. And in a Wednesday press conference, President Barack Obama called it one of the most productive congressional periods in decades. Joined now by NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Ari, thanks very much for being with us.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Scott.

SIMON: Boy, wasn't supposed to happen this way, was it?

SHAPIRO: Nobody expected it to be this productive, no.

SIMON: Let me list, I think, what the president considers victories: the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military; nuclear-arms reduction agreement with Russia; health bill for 9/11 first responders; a food safety bill; a - middle-class tax cuts and the extension of jobless benefits, controversial as it was.

SHAPIRO: Child nutrition bill, too.

SIMON: Thank you very much. I hadn't a child nutrition bill. So was this a result of a farsighted White House political strategy?

SHAPIRO: You know, it was a combination of strategy, luck and sheer muscle. You look at something like "don't ask, don't tell," for example, and everybody I talked to - from activists to Capitol Hill staffers - can describe the moment they knew "don't ask, don't tell" would never be repealed this year. And yet it happened, largely due to the stars aligning.

If, for example, the omnibus spending bill had not failed, then the stand-alone "don't ask, don't tell" repeal bill would not have come up just after the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal bill, that had failed as part of a larger bill, was voted on a few days earlier. So with something like "don't ask, don't tell," the stars really aligned.

With something like the START treaty, it was a full-out lobbying effort by the White House, where they mobilized every former secretary of state under a Republican president to call Republican senators. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama - was calling people. And they just got one Republican after another to line up until they reached that magic two-thirds of the Senate number, and got it passed.

SIMON: The next Congress is going to be very different in composition. But I think what made this lame-duck session so notable was bipartisan support for things like the overturn of "don't ask, don't tell," and for the ratification of the START treaty. Was there a change in heart among some congressional Republican leaders, too?

SHAPIRO: You know, President Obama cribbed a line from "Spider-Man" when he was asked about this. He said the Republicans realize that with greater power comes greater responsibility. And so he believes there will be more bipartisanship next year. But he's also setting up an agenda that has more potential for common ground - where he's talking about things like deficit reduction, education overhaul. Those have typically been issues that have won more Republican support than some of the more divisive issues like health care and an immigration overhaul.

So we'll see where things go, but they certainly seem to be on a trajectory for more bipartisan cooperation than we had seen in the last two years.

SIMON: Of course at the same time, although we talk about Republicans, obviously, having a much stronger hand in the next Congress, there's also going to be a significant number of Republicans who have been elected, who consider themselves Tea Party members first and Republicans second. How might that change the party?

SHAPIRO: Well, and we shouldn't underestimate the role of Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, who voted against the START treaty, voted against "don't ask, don't tell," and had a very significant victory during this lame-duck session in obstructing the omnibus spending bill that President Obama had wanted passed.

Not only would that have funded the government for the next year, but it would've funded some of his most important priorities, such as the health-care bill, the financial regulatory overhaul. Those are initiatives that will not be funded under the continuing resolution that Congress passed. And instead, in early 2011, these Tea Party Republicans, along with Senator McConnell and the Democrats, are going to have a big, big fight over the budget that is going to bring some of these issues - such as funding health care, funding the financial regulatory commission - right to the forefront.

SIMON: What about other issues that might be early up - next legislative fight? And I'm thinking of redistricting.

SHAPIRO: Redistricting, tax overhaul, education, immigration, the budget -these are all big fights just lining up and waiting for 2011.

SIMON: NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Scott.

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