The success of Barack Obama and the Democrats during last year’s lame-duck session of Congress gave the President some badly needed stability after the comprehensive “shellacking” (his oft-quoted word) that his party took in the election. The string of eleventh-hour victories—especially the repeal of the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy—also reenergized to some extent his liberal base, elements of which had been estranged by the deal to extend the Bush tax cuts that he had struck with Republicans earlier in December.
Sharply in contrast to the unsightly process by which the health care law was passed—the embarrassing deal made with Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, the camera-ready preening by various senators who were positioned to provide the crucial sixtieth vote—the lame-duck session found Democrats actually carrying out the people’s business in a more or less straightforward fashion. The coordination between the White House and the party’s congressional leaders seemed much stronger than before. Even some Republicans decided to take governing seriously, with an astonishing thirteen of them voting for the “New Start” arms treaty. Citizens were treated to a little two-week reenactment drama of how Congress used to work, back when it worked.
There arose the inevitable speculation about whether this comity could be carried over into the new year, but any serious person recognized that this was largely airtime-filling babble. True, the episode might give the White House an opportunity to say to Republicans such as Lisa Murkowski or Scott Brown at some future point: Remember when you voted with us, and the skies of Alaska or Massachusetts did not in fact fall in? But for the most part, the Republicans were being so cooperative, and the Democrats so hectically productive, because everyone knew that the 112th Congress, sworn in on January 5, would be quite a different creature. The House Republican caucus is augmented by sixty-three members and is, on paper at least, a considerably more hard-line group than even the Republican caucus of the Congress just ended, which gave the President not a single vote on the economic stimulus or health care, and just three on highly popular financial reform legislation.
Republican senators, who threatened filibusters in the last Congress relentlessly, are now forty-seven in number, an increase of five. But because of retirements and “pick-ups” (seats previously held by Democrats), fully thirteen of the forty-seven are fresh faces. Just one, Mark Kirk of Illinois, is considered somewhat moderate. A few others—notably Dan Coats of Indiana and Rob Portman of Ohio—are experienced legislators, meaning that even though they are certainly conservative, they presumably enter with some degree of appreciation for the horse-trading that makes legislatures work. But at least seven are Tea Party–supported ultras, notably Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Pat Toomey of…
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