With time ticking away towards Christmas and a new Congress where Republicans will have much more power, Democrats got two key victories Wednesday on a nuclear disarmament treaty and a bill to provide continuing health care for 9/11 first responders.
The two measures ended blizzard of legislation -- from extending tax cuts, to repealing "don't ask, don't tell" – that is unlike any lame duck session before, according to Congress watchers. More pieces of major legislation passed in the month of December than since March. That's when Democrats passed the landmark health reform bill and all action ground to a halt until the November elections, which crushed Democrats and emboldened Republicans.
The period between an election and a new Congress is called the lame duck, because normally, no meaningful work gets done.
But rather than wait for Republicans to take control of the House, and their majority to shrink in the Senate, Democrats returned to Washington after the midterm elections and, working with a handful of Senate Republicans, passed quite a bit.
The accomplishments have raised the ire of one Republican normally known for working with Democrats.
"I am not proud of this process. I'm not proud of this lame duck. I am not proud of what we've been -- we've been doing as a party, quite frankly, because we've jeopardized the minority standing in future congresses," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who worked with Democrats on immigration and climate change legislation earlier in 2010 before abandoning both proposals. "We're setting precedent in a lame duck that I think is unhealthy for the future of this country."
What is unclear is if the bipartisanship and accomplishments of the lame duck session will do anything to repair Congress's approval rating, which hit a record low this week, according to Gallup. In a new survey, only 13 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. A whopping 83 percent disapprove.
The accomplishments also don't necessarily presage bipartisanship in January, when the Republicans take control of the House leadership. A new Congress will mean an entirely new dynamic.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the top Republican in the Senate, opposed every piece of legislation passed during the lame duck except for the extension of Bush-era tax cuts. He wrote in an op-ed Wednesday that, "a new Congress begins two weeks from today, and if the American people sense that change is coming, they're right."
McConnell, who has said his number-one priority will be making sure President Obama loses reelection in 2012, will have six more Republican seats on his side of the aisle come January, and he wrote that Republicans will try to make government smaller.
"Some Democrats have responded to the election by reaffirming their belief in government's ability to solve our problems. But many others have acknowledged with their votes on the tax bill that the policies of the last two years have fallen short, and that it's time to move in a different direction. The importance of this shift can't be overstated."
The fact that shift is coming did much to spur the action this December.
Particularly aggravating for Graham during the lame duck session is the New START treaty, deemed President Obama's top foreign policy priority for the year-end session, which seeks to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, but which some Republicans see as a U.S. capitulation of power to Russia.