Congress Has No Quack In Lame Duck Session

In the first week of the lame duck Congress, Democrats mostly ran into roadblocks. They can't agree among themselves on what to do about the expiring Bush-era tax cuts. They face Republican obstruction on an omnibus spending bill, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and ratification of President Obama's top foreign policy objective, the new START treaty.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin with a general rule about Congress: If it makes a lot of noise but gets little done, it must be a lame duck. The latest lame-duck session began this week. Still, Democrats are hoping to muscle through a pile of unfinished business. That includes dealing with the expiring Bush-era tax cuts and a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won't become majority leader in January, as he and his fellow Republicans had hoped. Still, you might have thought it was McConnell who was in charge of the Senate this week. He told the White House he couldn't make it to the bipartisan dinner with congressional leaders that President Obama had planned for last night.

And McConnell also made it clear on the Senate floor that Republicans were not about to go along with much of what Democrats hoped to do in the lame- duck session.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Let me share with you what I believe our priorities need to be during the lame-duck session: first and foremost, preventing massive tax increases on families and small business, and stopping the Washington spending spree.

WELNA: McConnell is demanding this lame-duck session of Congress permanently extend all the Bush-era tax cuts that expire at the end of the year, at a cost of $4 trillion. The response yesterday from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: Go ahead and try it.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): If he wants to vote on that, I'll be happy to help arrange that. But he should also help arrange a vote on 250, period.

WELNA: A vote on 250 is shorthand for what most Democrats want - extending the Bush tax cuts for income up to $250,000 a household, but not for any above that threshold. That would cost $3 trillion. But this week, Reid failed to rally his divided Democrats behind that option, including Nebraska's Ben Nelson.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): From my perspective, it ought to be on how long all the taxes are extended, not whether any of them aren't extended.

WELNA: Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman, who's aligned with the Democrats, says there's simply no consensus among them about what to do on the tax cuts.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): I think there's a reality here - which is that while it might be best to continue the middle-class tax cuts and raise taxes on higher-income people, the votes are not there to do that.

WELNA: Lieberman says this lame-duck Congress will likely end up doing what he wants done: extending all the tax cuts, but only for two years. And it's now looking highly unlikely that President Obama's top foreign policy priority will be addressed. The Senate's number two Republican, Jon Kyl, says the nuclear arms reduction treaty - known as New START - is not yet ready for Senate action.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): The majority leader called and asked me if I thought that the treaty could be considered in the lame-duck session. I said I didn't think so.

WELNA: But the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, says his fellow Republicans are simply looking for excuses not to hand President Obama a foreign policy victory.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): Sometimes, if you prefer not to vote, you attempt to find reasons not to vote.

WELNA: This lame-duck session may also be the last chance, for some time, to approve a repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that's banned openly gay people from serving in the military. This week, over the strong objections of many Republicans, Majority Leader Reid said he would bring up the annual defense policy bill that has that repeal provision in it.

At a rally in favor of the repeal yesterday, Colorado Democrat Mark Udall vowed it would soon become law.

Senator MARK UDALL (Democrat, Colorado): We're going to have that opportunity to have this vote on the floor of the Senate if we have courage and we're steadfast. Christmas Eve, let's - I'll go through Christmas Eve.

WELNA: It's a promise that could soon be put to the test.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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