After last November’s election, one might have expected the Obama White House and Democratic Congress to take six weeks off to mull their defeat. Instead, they used the lame duck session in December to win cloture-proof majorities for some very significant bills. Just today, the Senate ratified the new START arms control treaty by a whopping 71 to 26 vote. On December 18, the Senate voted by 65 to 31 to strike down the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy against gays serving openly in the armed forces.
Today’s ratification of the New Start treaty reduces U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, and resumes inspections between the two countries, but its real importance is in strengthening U.S.-Russian relations, which had become frayed under George W. Bush. The U.S. needs Russian support to achieve American objectives in Iran, Afghanistan, and East Asia. And the treaty’s ratification may also boost the stock of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, with whom Obama negotiated the treaty, at the expense of the more intransigent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The votes on START and on DADT also displayed the outlines of a coalition between Senate Democrats and moderate or moderately conservative Republicans that could overcome the kind of filibuster strategy that the Republican leadership has used over the last two years against administration proposals and appointments. The Republicans who signed onto these bills were willing to put the merits of the legislation above the leadership’s attempt to cripple Obama.
Utah Senator Robert Bennett and Ohio Senator George Voinovich are leaving the Senate and don’t count. But Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Massachusetts’s Scott Brown, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who voted for both bills, would seem to constitute a dependable moderate bloc. And add to them newly elected Mark Kirk from Illinois (who represents a blue state), North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, and Nevada Senator Jon Ensign (who represent states that Obama carried in 2008), Johnny Isakson (who comes out of suburban Atlanta), and Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker (who come from eastern Tennessee, the home in the past of moderate Republicans like Howard Baker.)
Obama and the Democrats also won a victory on a bill granting health benefits to September 11 responders. On December 9, Republican senators used a filibuster to block consideration of the bill. But, after the success of DADT, New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand reintroduced the bill. This time, with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Fox News commentator Shep Smith shaming the Republicans, the bill won unanimous support and passed.
Perhaps the most lasting, and controversial, achievement was the passage of the $858 billion tax proposal that the White House worked out with Republican leaders. The bill extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy another two years and reduced the tax on multi-million dollar estates. But it also maintained middle-income tax cuts that would have expired and put into effect a 2 percent payroll tax cut this year. While tax cuts for the wealthy may do little to help the economy—and, over time, hurt it by deepening the deficit—the other tax cuts in the bill promise to jack up the economy by raising consumer demand.
There was probably no other way that this administration was going to get Congress to pass a desperately needed stimulus for an economy that still suffers from near 10 percent unemployment. And simply doing nothing, and letting all the tax cuts expire in January, would have depressed the economy. So, while the tax bill had serious failings, it was better than the alternative. And Obama and the Democrats deserve credit for making the best deal in the circumstances.
Obama and the Democrats didn’t win everything this month—they couldn’t beat the filibuster against the DREAM Act—but they won far more than any administration I can remember. Those of us who were gravely concerned after the November elections that the Obama White House would be unable to deal with an emboldened Republican party can take heart from the achievements of this lame duck Congress.
John B. Judis is a senior editor for The New Republic.