Can the next Congress match the lame-duck session's bipartisanship?

Thursday, December 23, 2010; 8:25 PM

ONE THING THAT'S become clear about the science of climate change is that it is a mistake to make a big deal of short-term alterations in the Earth's temperature. The only way to judge whether the planet is warming - or cooling - is to assess decades of data. The same, on a shorter time frame, is true of politics. This fact is worth bearing in mind in light of Democratic, and presidential, giddiness over the surprisingly successful, and gratifyingly bipartisan, work-product of the lame-duck Congress. The president and lawmakers have every reason to feel good about the closing weeks of the 111th Congress. The deal over expiring Bush tax cuts, the passage of the New START treaty, the overdue end of "don't ask, don't tell" and the phoenix-like revival of the food-safety measure are achievements to be celebrated.

Still, it would be naive to believe that the current feel-good atmosphere - to the extent that it is accurate to call it that - is destined, or even likely, to continue. In his news conference Wednesday, President Obama praised the "season of progress for the American people" that followed the election, adding, "If there's any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it's that we are not doomed to endless gridlock." Mr. Obama is right to celebrate the possibility of principled bipartisanship. But he was also right to forecast "tough fights" in the months ahead, particularly over spending levels and priorities. When the political temperatures are assessed over a longer-time horizon, the thaw of the past few weeks may look more like an anomalous blip than the beginning of a warming trend.

Two data points of the lame-duck session illuminate the concerns. The first is what the president described as the "heartbreaking" inability of the Senate to amass the necessary votes to pass the Dream Act, despite the moral imperative of helping promising young people who find themselves consigned to life in the shadows through no fault of their own - and the long-term political incentive for Republicans to stop alienating a growing segment of the electorate.

The second is the Senate's failure to approve annual spending bills, leaving the government to limp along until money runs out again in early March. Funding will expire just as the government needs to raise the debt ceiling, setting the stage for hard bargaining and possible brinkmanship. We continue to think the best strategy to keep an ugly spring from spoiling December's good cheer would be for Mr. Obama to rise above the fray with a long-term, make-the-hard-choices plan to reduce the nation's debt while fostering economic growth.

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