Lame-Duck Session Churns Out Surprising Successes

This year's lame-duck session of Congress has been anything but lame.

December 20, 2010, 1:26 PM

Dec. 21, 2010— -- This year's lame-duck session of Congress has been anything but lame.

In the past week alone, lawmakers have passed a tax cut compromise bill to avert the biggest tax hike in history and a repeal of the military's controversial "don't Ask, don't Tell policy" on gays serving openly in the military. And its not over yet.

In the coming days Congress could pass a $6 billion measure to help 9/11 first responders and a sweeping food safety bill. The Senate could also ratify the START nuclear treaty with Russia, deemed President Obama's top foreign policy priority for the year-end session.

Ultimately, whether or not START is ratified, analysts believe we may witness 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.

For much of 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 other efforts such as repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy towards gays, and the food safety bill.

"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. "Because of his leadership, we cut taxes for middle-class families, repealed 'don't ask, don't tell,' and passed a bill to make sure that the food we eat is safe. 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 – from 'don't ask, don't tell' to the START treaty and even to a range of smaller issues like judicial appointments and the 9/11 emergency responders bill. 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."

But all the legislative action has infuriated Republicans, who have argued that Democrats did not get the message of November's midterm elections.

"Last month when voters set the Washington establishment on fire they wanted Democrats to stop what they were doing, drop their liberal agenda, and roll out of town. Unfortunately Democrats didn't get the message," a GOP aide told ABC News.

So when all is said and done – assuming START is ratified – could this be 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. "If you get food safety through and I think there's a pretty strong chance they'll get some version of the 9/11 bill through, so if you put that together with the tax agreement and "don't ask, don't tell", it's 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 under 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."

If anything, this lame-duck session has definitely been intense.

The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.) 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.

To think that there might still be a few more days to go.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events