By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, November 15, 2010;
The lame-duck session of Congress that kicks off this week will test whether Democrats have spines made of Play-Doh and whether President Obama has decided to pretend that capitulation is conciliation.
Congress faces an enormous amount of unfinished business, largely because of successful GOP obstruction tactics during the regular session. Republican senators who declare themselves moderate helped block action on important bills, objecting to provisions they didn't like or to Democratic procedural maneuvers.
Thus did Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts give themselves permission to fall in line behind their party's leadership even as they continued to claim true independence.
Okay, let's test that. One of the bills blocked was the Disclose Act, designed to end the scandal of secret money in election campaigns. If this year's contests prove anything, it's that voters should have the right to know which millionaires, corporations and special interests are flooding the airwaves with attack ads on behalf of candidates who can blithely deny any connection to the slander and any knowledge of who might be trying to buy influence.
Shortly after the election, Michael Isikoff and Rich Gardella of NBC News reported that one of the big Republican secret-money groups, Crossroads GPS, got "a substantial portion" of its money "from a small circle of extremely wealthy Wall Street hedge fund and private equity moguls." These contributors "have been bitterly opposed to a proposal by congressional Democrats - and endorsed by the Obama administration - to increase the tax rates on compensation that hedge funds pay their partners."
It shouldn't take investigative reporting after the fact for voters to learn such things. Snowe, Collins and Brown say they are for disclosure, as does Mark Kirk, the new Republican senator from Illinois. Senate Democratic leaders should give them a chance to prove it by bringing up the bill.
Another casualty in the regular session was legislation to end the military's foolish "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Again, Collins is a key player. We now have a court decision declaring the policy invalid and the military is reportedly ready to declare that ending discrimination against gays would not harm the armed forces. It's often said that the elected branches, not the courts, should make decisions of this sort. Fine. Let the Senate get it done.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won a bruising reelection campaign partly because of strong support from Latino voters. He should keep his promise to bring up the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who arrived here as children if they attend college or join the military.
There are a slew of judicial nominations and several executive branch appointments pending. Abuse of the confirmation process is another longtime scandal. The Senate shouldn't leave town without getting these appointees through.
An extension of unemployment insurance is set to expire at the end of this month, with the unemployment rate at 9.6 percent. Will Congress go home with little thought to what the lives of these Americans will be like during the coming holidays?
Which brings up the biggest scandal of all: Imagine a Congress that their party still controls passing an extension of the Bush tax cuts for millionaires but leaving the unemployed in the cold. If this happens, laugh out loud the next time a Democrat claims to be on the side of working people.
Yet administration officials seemed eager to engage in premature capitulation - even if senior adviser David Axelrod tried to back off that approach on Sunday - without a word about the jobless benefits or replacing the tax cuts for the wealthy with measures more geared toward creating jobs, as Sen. Mark Warner has suggested. Couldn't they at least have gone to Sen. Chuck Schumer's compromise that would limit the tax cuts to those earning under $1 million? And some Democratic senators just don't want to be bothered with a long lame-duck session. They want to take care of the wealthy and not do much more.
By caving on tax cuts, the president would turn his recent speeches into empty talk, lending his hand to those who would drive the car back into that ditch he loved to talk about. And if Democrats don't turn the lame-duck session into a moment of action, they will end a Congress of great achievement not with a bang but with a craven whimper.