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.
"The real threat is a rogue state missile attack or an accidental launch. So what we're about to do is negotiate -- negotiate away something we desperately need in a Congress that doesn't represent the will of the people," a frustrated Graham told reporters after the treaty moved forward on a procedural vote. It is likely to pass Wednesday.
Read more about the New START treaty Still outstanding, besides the START treaty, is final agreement on a $6 billion measure to help 9/11 first responders.
The remarkable string of lame duck accomplishments began in early December when President Obama worked with Senate Republicans toward a tax cut compromise bill to avert the biggest tax hike in history, a sweeping food safety bill, and a repeal of the military's controversial "don't ask, don't tell policy" on gays serving openly in the military.
The President signed the official repeal of that policy – which will be phased in – at a ceremony in Washington Wednesday.
Ultimately, whether or not the 9/11 First Responders bill passes this year, analysts believe this is the most productive lame-duck session in the history of Congress. At a time when Congress is full of departing lawmakers with one foot out the door – due to retirement or midterm defeat – the recent flurry of activity on Capitol Hill has left Democrats flexing their muscles and Republicans crying foul.
Early in December, it looked like the lame duck would limp to an early end. In fact, the House initially had a target adjournment date of December 3. Over in the Senate, Republicans vowed to oppose all measures until Congress had resolved the issues of taxes and government funding.
"We're simply saying that what the results of the election say to us is that we ought to keep tax rates where they are, freeze spending, fund the government, and go home," the Senate's number-three Republican, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said at the start of the month.
The GOP did succeed in getting Democrats to agree to an extension of all the Bush tax cuts and abandon a mammoth $1.1 trillion omnibus spending plan in favor of a short-term funding measure, but Democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., emerged victorious on the other legislative measures.
"Sen. Reid has made it very clear throughout this Congress that he is laser-focused on the challenges facing struggling families and is not afraid to work long hours to address them. The lame duck has been no different," a Reid spokesman told ABC News. "While this session has been filled with Republican obstructionism, we're proud of what we have been able to accomplish for the country and we hope that the Republicans will work with us a little more next year."
Lame Duck Race to the Finish
According to Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, Democrats were especially driven to make a last-ditch push for a slew of their issues because come January, Republicans are poised to take control of the House and gain seats in the Senate.
"This has really been a remarkable race to the finish line for the Democratic Congress," Binder said. "Democrats in both chambers see the window closing on a wide range of Democratic initiatives. … The prospect of sharing the gavel with Republicans seems to have motivated Democrats to keep up a relentless push to the end – knowing that many of these legislative efforts would be dead on arrival in the new Congress."
So is this the most productive lame-duck session in history?
"I think actually you could make the case that this is the most productive lame duck even without START," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who called the string of bills a "smashing set of achievements, whether you like them or don't like them."
"There have been lame ducks that have been aimed at just doing one thing, often just getting a budget through, or something like the impeachment of a president, but there haven't really been any that has had the breadth of this one," he added.
Other analysts say not so fast. While this year's session is undoubtedly far better than lame ducks like the session in 1948 that ended in less than two hours, there have been a few other sessions that featured their own notable accomplishments.
The 1974 lame duck, for instance, featured Nelson Rockefeller's appointment as vice president, the passage of a landmark trade act, and the enactment of a slew of major energy and environmental laws. The 1980 lame duck saw the passage of the Alaska Lands bill, the biggest land preservation bill in history. And the 1998 session will be remembered for the House voting to impeach President Bill Clinton.
Lame Duck Marked by Tears, Animosity
"Lame ducks have brought us major trade laws, environmental programs, and presidential impeachments," said Binder, "but I'd say that it's been a remarkably productive session given how intensely the parties disagree over many of the major issues of the day."
Emotions have run high throughout the lame duck.
McConnell broke down in tears on the Senate floor as he bid farewell to his departing colleague Sen. Judd Gregg, (R-N.H.) Reid launched into an angry war of words with Sen. Jon Kyl, (R-Ariz.), about the meaning of Christmas. Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), protested the tax deal in an 8 ½ hour tirade on the chamber's floor.
And it's also been, at times, the theater of the absurd.
The Senate held a rare impeachment trial to impeach a federal judge, only the eighth time in history that has ever happened. Republican senators threatened to force a 50-hour oral reading on the Senate floor of the 1,924-page omnibus bill. And as Christmas approached, one Democratic senator even missed two crucial votes to attend a holiday party.