President Barack Obama can relax in the week ahead in familiar Hawaii surroundings as he contemplates the months ahead without wallowing in the "shellacking" that he took in the mid-term elections. The productive lame-duck session of Congress in the past two weeks gives Obama powerful momentum and some indication that gridlock may not lie ahead after all, if he seeks common ground with Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced after the November elections that the GOP’s chief goal over the next two years would be to deny Obama a second term in the White House. Obama acknowledged before his flight to Hawaii that "tough fights" are ahead.
Obama and the Democratic Congress of the past two years can boast of largely party-line success: a comprehensive health reform law, pay equity for women, credit card controls, student loan reform and
allowing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco.
But the lame-duck session was extraordinary. A strangely bipartisan Congress approved a tax bill that retains Bush-era tax cuts for two years while extending unemployment compensation, ratified the New START arms control treaty with Russia and repealed the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy against openly gay people in the military. On the session’s final day, a bipartisan deal in Congress produced House and Senate approval to pay medical costs for 9/11 rescue workers.
"A lot of folks in this town predicted, after the midterm elections, Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock," Obama told reporters. "And instead, this has been a season of progress for the American people."
The bipartisanship is likely to extend to ratification of the South Korean Free Trade Agreement, but other issues will be more difficult in a GOP-led House and a Senate with a smaller margin of a majority of Democrats.
The most important issue will be recovery from the nation’s economic crisis. Obama was able to swiftly reach agreement with Republicans this month on the tax bill, and cooperation looks possible to craft tax reform and reduce federal spending in order to reduce the budget deficit.
A GOP move – for show – to repeal the health reform law should provide Obama an opportunity to reach agreement with Republicans on changes in the statute.
The president said he is most disappointed that lame-duck Senate Republicans blocked the Dream Act, which would have provided citizenship for foreign-born college students or members of the military. We share that disappointment. If immigration reform is rejected by the coming Congress, as Republicans vow, the political implications could be significant.
Immigration reform was proposed by Spanish-speaking President George W. Bush and co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, both of whom were supported at the polls by large number of Hispanic voters, which have grown in number in Florida, Texas, Nevada and other states.
Don’t be surprised if gridlock is pushed aside, at least prior to presidential campaigning. Republicans increased in number largely because they captured seats this year in blue or purple districts that moderate Democrats had won in previous elections.
Those new members of Congress are bound to find ways to satisfy their moderate to liberal constituencies, following the practice of tea-party movement candidate Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, who won the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy early this year.
Republican leaders expect that gridlock may be easy. We hope not.