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Democrats insist that any lame-duck legislative session would be, well, pretty lame — a forced march focused on continuing resolutions and other minor agenda items.
But some conservative activists and GOP leaders seem to be playing to voter passions and issuing warnings about a lame-duck session. Their nightmare scenario: A weakened Democratic majority might make one final stab at forcing through massive spending bills, passing a wildly controversial cap-and-trade package and generally enshrining a liberal agenda — after it has lost elections nationwide.
Indeed, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), in a statement to POLITICO, called on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to “guarantee — right now — that they will not bring members back for a ‘sour grapes’ session after the election.”
Never mind that Democrats don’t even know what their November schedule might be four months out, Boehner is laying down his marker.
“The American people shouldn’t have to face the prospect of lame-duck Washington Democrats imposing tax increases or any other job-killing policies on their way out the door,” Boehner said. “People have a right to know that Congress will respect their will, whatever it is.”
Katie Grant, Hoyer’s spokeswoman, said that “if Republicans are so eager to get out of here, we hope they’ll join us in moving our job-creating agenda forward.” Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s spokesman, said it’s the “height of hypocrisy for any Republican to be talking about schedule.”
But several House and Senate Democrats agreed with their Republican counterparts that nothing substantive is likely to happen in a lame-duck session, despite rhetorical warnings from conservatives.
“In my experience, lame ducks are usually dead ducks,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told POLITICO. The opposing party, he said, “just gets mad and angry, and not much happens.”
“Why would people who don’t want us to get anything done now — are they going to have an epiphany in November?” added Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “I don’t know why they would be any more cooperative after the elections [than] they [were] before. We still have to get 60 votes. It doesn’t change with the election.”
Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the Senate’s most senior members, said Republicans are “not going to put up with” an action-packed lame-duck session.
“They know it’s likely there will be less Democrats in the Senate if Republicans are lucky enough by the end of this year,” Hatch said. “So there will be a big push to try to make a big stink. As you can see, lame ducks don’t work. Republicans aren’t going to roll over and play dead if they want to play politics at the end of the year.”
The right wing is also making noises about a prospective lame-duck session — even though Republicans used lame-duck sessions to attempt to pass major legislation when they controlled Congress. Freedom Works, the conservative organization run by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), is circulating a “No Lame Duck” petition. The group’s website warns that Democrats — after potentially losing control of the House — could push through tax increases and stimulus-type bills, even though there are no plans to do so.
“When will politicians finally get the message?!” reads the petition, which is being sent to members of Congress.
Boehner’s statement and the Freedom Works initiative are clearly aimed at painting the Democrats as mucking with the will of voters and tricking the public by enacting laws after votes alter the membership of Congress and before a new session begins.
Democrats said the conservative furor is misplaced, since the majority is working vociferously to finish its work before the election so lawmakers don’t have to rush back to D.C. during the holiday season.
Lawmakers from both parties agreed that it’s politically unpalatable and unrealistic to have a substantive lame-duck session. Also, the Republican Senate minority will quite likely have much more power to exert its will next Congress and thus little reason to cooperate at the end of this year.
And should Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lose his reelection bid, the Senate will quickly be consumed with a leadership race to succeed him — and it’s far from clear whether Reid would want one of his last acts in the Senate to be a controversial lame-duck agenda.
Even if Reid should win in November, he’ll face the same obstacles in the Senate he’s faced all year.
“Given how much stalling Republicans are doing, we are probably going to need one,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. “But we are a long way from making decisions about the agenda.”
Whatever happens in a lame-duck session, it is likely to be minor — or at least bipartisan.
Democrats vow that if they do bring Congress back to Washington after the November elections, it will be to pass bills to keep the government running or bring a piece of legislation across the finish line.
This all but rules out immigration legislation, the so-called card check union bill, a massive highway spending bill and an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Other legislation that might be considered, according to aides, includes a spending bill that would extend this year’s funding levels or an “omnibus” bill that would modestly increase funding levels across the government.
There is one major agenda item looming — extension of the Bush-era tax cuts — and it’s unclear whether both chambers can move fast enough to extend the tax cuts. Democrats plan to extend most of the tax breaks, potentially before the election, but Hoyer warned that “the goal is to get it done before they expire” on Dec. 31.
But beyond that, some Democrats sense there’s little sense in trying to do anything substantive in a lame-duck session.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said Democrats are having trouble “communicating what we legislated,” a problem that would certainly carry over to a short lame-duck session.
Also, lawmakers leaving Congress may be hesitant to pitch in. Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who is leaving the House after losing a gubernatorial primary this year, said “it depends on what happens with the size of the majority.”
Even retirees and election losers, however, may not want to flip their votes in a lame-duck session.
“The quickest way to lose your credibility would be to come up here and start voting the opposite of the way you’ve been voting your entire career,” Davis told POLITICO.
Plus, in politics, there’s always a future.
“Half the members who lose plan to run again in 2012,” Davis said.
Jonathan Allen contributed to this report.