A lame-duck session with unexpected victories

President Barack Obama celebrated a bipartisan "season of progress' on Thursday at a year-end news conference a few hours after the Senate ratified an arms control treaty with Russia. (Dec. 22)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 4:34 PM

When the lame-duck session of Congress started more than a month ago, President Obama looked defeated and deflated, publicly acknowledging the "shellacking" his party had taken in the November midterm elections.

Now, a six-week session that was expected to reflect a weakened president has turned into a surprising success. On Wednesday, Obama signed into law the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members, and the Senate approved a new nuclear treaty with Russia that the president had declared a top priority.

Those accomplishments come after Obama successfully negotiated a free-trade agreement with South Korea, reached a deal with Republicans that extended unemployment benefits and prevented a tax hike for millions of Americans and signed a bill that will make school lunches healthier.

This blitz of bill signings completes a dramatic first two years for the nation's first black president that included the enactment of arguably the most major liberal policies since the Johnson administration but also the Democrats' biggest loss of House seats in 72 years.

After the election defeats and bitter battles over the health care and financial regulation legislation, the next two years were widely expected to be tied up by gridlock between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic president. But the past month suggests the future could be different.

Obama and his team reinvented their political approach over the past several weeks to win key Republican votes, no longer relying mainly on the huge Democratic majorities in Congress that they won't have in the new year.

Republicans, meanwhile, said they would welcome working with Obama on issues where the two sides agree, as even as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reaffirmed that his top goal for the two next two years was ensuring that the president did not win a second term.

"With the lame duck, the 111th Congress may even surpass the 89th [of President Lyndon Johnson] in terms of accomplishments," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Still, he said, "the sluggish economy and the protracted and partisan battles on many of these issues, including the deliberate actions in the Senate by Republicans to slow everything down and use the tools of obstruction, made most of the wins ugly ones, leaving liberals and many others disillusioned."

The lame duck in some ways was a condensed version of the complicated first two years of the Obama presidency: a long list of legislative accomplishments, middling poll numbers and a stalled economy that could affect his chances for reelection.

"There was a lot of legislation, but the only issue people care about is jobs," said Republican pollster David Winston.

Obama faced big battles to win his priorities. But in signing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," he achieved another long-held Democratic goal, as he did in pushing through a health-care law that will extend coverage to more than 30 million people.

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