Democrats Try To Push Through Priorities Before Christmas Democrats are trying to leverage President Obama's tax-cut deal with Republicans to chalk up some big accomplishments in the last gasp of the 111th Congress. They may have to abandon the Dream Act and similar priorities, but they're still angling for the START treaty and a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
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Democrats Try To Push Through Priorities Before Christmas

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Democrats Try To Push Through Priorities Before Christmas

Democrats Try To Push Through Priorities Before Christmas

Democrats Try To Push Through Priorities Before Christmas

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Democrats are trying to leverage President Obama's tax-cut deal with Republicans to chalk up some big accomplishments in the last gasp of the 111th Congress. They may have to abandon the Dream Act and similar priorities, but they're still angling for the START treaty and a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne. Good morning.

For Democrats on Capitol Hill, their last days of wielding big majorities are quickly vanishing. So are their prospects for pushing through two top priorities; an arms control treaty with Russia and the repeal of don't ask, don't tell - that ban on gays serving openly in the military.

Senate Republicans are blocking all legislation until Congress approves the deal with President Obama, to extend all the Bush-era tax cuts another two years.

NPR's David Welna reports on the standoff.

DAVID WELNA: The deal to renew the expiring tax cuts could be taken up by the Senate today. Majority leader Harry Reid said so yesterday. Still, as Reid opened the Senate session, dealing with the tax cuts did not seem to be what he thought the Senate should take up next.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada, Majority Leader): I'm likely going to move to my motion to reconsider on the Defense Authorization Act this evening.

WELNA: Translation: Reid said he'd try once again to bring up the annual Defense policy bill that includes a repeal of don't ask, don't tell. That bill's been blocked by Republicans, and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin says it's the right time to try to revive it.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan, Chairman, Armed Services Committee): And if we wait until there's a finalized deal or a vote on tax issues, we may be here another week before that happens. I don't know when that's going to happen. But if we have any chance of getting a bill done, including hopefully a repeal of don't ask, don't tell, it's got to be done this week.

WELNA: A few Republicans do favor a repeal of don't ask, don't tell, but they don't seem willing to help Democrats reach the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to the floor, at least not at the moment.

One of them is Susan Collins of Maine. Last night, she said she would vote against bringing up the defense bill now.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): If you really care about the Defense Authorization Bill and the repeal of don't ask, don't tell, then you would accept the proposal that Joe Lieberman and I have jointly put forth, to not have the vote tonight, to get the tax bill passed and to proceed in a fair way.

WELNA: In the end, no vote was held on bringing up the don't ask, don't tell repeal. What the Senate should do next, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, is take up and pass the deal on tax cuts he worked out with President Obama.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky, Minority Leader): We've reached a bipartisan agreement. It's time Democrats in Congress reach a similar conclusion and enable us to act for the good of the whole country.

WELNA: But Dick Durbin, the Senate's second ranking Democrat, had another message on the tax deal: Not so fast.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): I think the Democratic Senate Caucus strongly feels that some changes need to be made, and we're working those out now with the administration.

WELNA: One such change, said Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, would be to include an authorization to raise the debt ceiling, a vote no lawmaker likes to take.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democratic, Iowa): If people are going to vote for tax breaks for the wealthy, and put it on our kids and grandkids' back, then they ought to have to have the guts to vote to increase the debt too.

WELNA: But Arizona's Jon Kyl, who negotiated the tax deal for Senate Republicans, insists the deal they struck with the president can't be altered.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): There is no end to the number of things that people would like to put onto an agreement like this. And so the agreement early on was, that this has to be the deal and nothing but the deal, essentially.

WELNA: Kyl and other Republicans hope that tax agreement will come to the Senate floor today, and be approved during a weekend session.

Democrats, meanwhile, are also pushing for the Senate to take up and ratify the stalled arms control treaty with Russia, known as New START. Kyl, who's the number two Republican, is the GOP's point man on the treaty. He says there's no time left to deal with it in the lame-duck.

Sen. KYL: The treaty is a very important thing. They have plenty of time to debate and have amendments to the resolution of ratification. And if you're doing that right up against Christmas Eve, that's not a good thing.

WELNA: Still, a lame duck session on Christmas Eve is not out of the question. Democrats insist they still intend to ratify the New START Treaty and pass don't ask, don't tell before going home.

David Welna, NPR news, the Capitol.

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