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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks to reporters outside of the White House. A spokesman for McConnell has said that the GOP remains "on guard" for Democratic maneuvers during the lame duck session.
Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. He covers the White House, Congress, and campaigns.
As Senate GOP leaders look ahead to the lame-duck session, many are cautiously optimistic about their chances of thwarting any big-ticket spending initiatives. In fact, with a limited calendar and potential Democratic losses on the horizon, some Republicans wonder whether the latter will even come up for debate.
In an interview with National Review Online, Don Stewart, the communications director for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (KY), says that Republicans "are preparing and remain on guard" for Democratic maneuvers. Still, he says, "With a whole new crop of Democrats, including the president, immediately facing the 2012 cycle after Election Day, there may not be a lot of momentum on their side to make controversial votes."
Some Democrats may choose to stay home. "Typically in lame-duck sessions, people aren't in a great mood, especially if they've just had a bad day," Stewart observes. "So some of them may not even show up — there is potential for a few complete absences. Would you want to come up here for some ugly, hard vote after you'd lost or retired?"
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are hoping to bolster their ranks immediately. Three Democratic appointees — Sen. Roland Burris (IL), Sen. Carte Goodwin (WV), and Sen. Ted Kaufman (DE) — will relinquish their seats following the midterms. With potential pickups emerging from those races, "We could have three new members right away, if we have a really good day," Stewart says. "That doesn't get us to 50, of course, but it takes them farther away from 60 and would give us a little more leverage, which leads us to think that they won't spend a lot of time on big, controversial things." (In the Senate, a party needs 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.)
In recent months, the lame-duck session, which is slated to begin on Nov. 15, has been the subject of much debate on Capitol Hill. Various Senate Democrats have voiced their support for pursuing hot-button legislation, from the DREAM Act, which deals with the immigration status of illegal residents, to the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which is included in the defense-authorization bill. A climate bill has also been rumored, but with Gov. Joe Manchin, the Democrats' Senate nominee in West Virginia, literally shooting one in his new campaign spot, the likelihood of one in the lame duck is close to nil.
The November session will be brief, just a few days before the Senate recesses for Thanksgiving. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) has arranged for a debate on a vote on the Food Safety Modernization Act, which Stewart predicts will not cause much of a fuss. Due to debate constraints, little more will be on the legislative agenda next month.
Come December, things may heat up. Stewart tells us that Republicans will be focused on finding a way to extend the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of this year. Stewart says that the GOP is open to working with Democrats on this, and that party leaders want to find a way to keep current law in place. Republicans would also like to see a freeze on appropriations and spending kept to at least $300 billion below the president's current budget proposal, all while eyeing more ways to slice largesse from the federal budget.
Republicans will also make sure to fight any potential tax hikes. On that front, McConnell, who does not see increased taxes as the answer to the deficit, is waiting to review what the bipartisan Deficit Reduction Commission recommends. The debate over the commission's report "could take up a lot of time," Stewart says. "Most Republicans are disinclined to go for any more taxes. We would like to do something real on entitlement reform," but he is unsure about whether Democrats have any serious interest.
For conservatives who remain worried about Democratic shenanigans in the lame duck, Stewart offers a parting thought: "Remember, if they can't pass it now, they sure as heck won't be able to pass it then. . . . I don't want to dampen enthusiasm, but when you look at the political reality, they may get aggressive, but they hopefully just won't have the votes to do much damage."