What happens when Democrats come back to Congress immediately after losing control of the House and perhaps even the Senate, assuming Republicans can ride a wave of voter anger to national victory in the midterms? They will have almost two months before the newly-elected members arrive in Washington DC, and with several weeks of legislative time left in the 111th Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid can do a lot of damage. John Fund discusses the probable strategy of Democrats looking to make their swan song memorable:
Democratic House members are so worried about the fall elections they’re leaving Washington on July 30, a full week earlier than normal—and they won’t return until mid-September. Members gulped when National Journal’s Charlie Cook, the Beltway’s leading political handicapper, predicted last month “the House is gone,” meaning a GOP takeover. He thinks Democrats will hold the Senate, but with a significantly reduced majority.
The rush to recess gives Democrats little time to pass any major laws. That’s why there have been signs in recent weeks that party leaders are planning an ambitious, lame-duck session to muscle through bills in December they don’t want to defend before November. Retiring or defeated members of Congress would then be able to vote for sweeping legislation without any fear of voter retaliation.
“I’ve got lots of things I want to do” in a lame duck, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W. Va.) told reporters in mid June. North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, wants a lame-duck session to act on the recommendations of President Obama’s deficit commission, which is due to report on Dec. 1. “It could be a huge deal,” he told Roll Call last month. “We could get the country on a sound long-term fiscal path.” By which he undoubtedly means new taxes in exchange for extending some, but not all, of the Bush-era tax reductions that will expire at the end of the year.
In the House, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters last month that for bills like “card check”—the measure to curb secret-ballot union elections—”the lame duck would be the last chance, quite honestly, for the foreseeable future.”
Of all of the efforts Fund lists, the only projects likely to pass in the rump 111th Session will be pork. With a new mandate on spending discipline coming in the 112th, porkers in both parties will want to lard up as much as possible before they hit the bricks for Christmas. It will be the only bipartisan consensus in the final days of this Congress, and the lack of a budget will make it much easier to get that pork built into the continuing resolutions that will fund FY2011.
However, almost everything else will be a dead letter. Democrats have always had the votes to get these legislative agenda items passed on floor votes, if all that was necessary was party discipline and some skilled whipping of votes. The problem is the bills themselves. The House has already passed cap-and-trade, for instance, one of the items Fund notes will be a key objective in the lame-duck session. The problem is that it won’t pass a filibuster. Republicans won’t bite, especially with Lindsey Graham retreating from global-warming policy and with Scott Brown declaring himself against it earlier.
The same is even more true for card check. Tom Harkin may fantasize about a Senate that will allow that bill to come to a floor vote, but it won’t be this one. Republicans aren’t about to allow Democrats to strengthen union power by eliminating the secret ballot from organizing elections, especially after the unions lose this midterm fight to keep Democrats in place. The ground situation will not change on either of these two policies, because the 41 that stopped them before will be the same 41 stopping them after the election.
I don’t disagree that Democrats won’t attempt to use the lame-duck session for some shenanigans, but unless they can convince Senate Republicans to join them in defying what will almost certainly be a resounding mandate in November, it’s not going to succeed.