A Very Different Lame-Duck: Lessons From 2010

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In Congress's last lame-duck session, things went swimmingly.

Washington saw an historically productive lame-duck session after the 2010 midterm elections. President Obama and Congress managed to extend the Bush tax cuts, keep the government funded, abolish the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, extend unemployment-insurance benefits, renew the "doc fix" to set Medicare reimbursement rates, grant new FDA powers to recall tainted food, prevent an estate-tax hike, and ratify the New START nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia.

The 2012 lame-duck looks very different: Washington is focused on one thing.

With the Bush tax cuts set to expire and budget sequestration set to kick in on Dec. 31, Obama and congressional Republicans are negotiating for a big, singular deal to solve them both. The National Defense Authorization Act looms as another item on the to-do list, but the fiscal cliff is the main attraction.

Obama has launched a public campaign around it. House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have been holding press conferences to talk about it.

"The fiscal cliff is what we're focused on," Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said. "That's what we need to get a resolution for."

The 2010 and 2012 lame-ducks offer a case study in opposite political moments, but there are lessons to be learned from last time.

Back then, Republicans had just thumped Democrats in the midterm elections, and President Obama vowed to learn a lesson from his party's loss. Subsequently, he gave in to GOP demands on the Bush tax cuts, extending them for two years and earning himself some centrist plaudits. This time around, no one is backing down so easily.

And this time around, the political moment isn't so clear. Both Obama and congressional Republicans won in 2012, and neither has shown signs of backing down.

Back then, Democrats controlled the House and had the luxury of pushing items on their actual agenda: the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal and the DREAM Act immigration bill (which failed), putting even more major bills on the floor. This time, Congress will confront the fiscal cliff out of sheer necessity.

Things could be easier this time around. With so much on the agenda in 2010, time became a major problem, as the slow-footed Senate struggled to move each bill through. Due to procedural rules, it can take three days to pass a bill if the opposition gathers enough votes against it. Senators harbored resentments that unrelated amendments didn't receive enough time for debate. In 2012, distractions are limited.

They could also be harder, thanks to the fiscal cliff's singularity. In less ideological times, legislation moved with trade-offs. Supporting one bill could earn a lawmaker returned favors on another. A full slate of unrelated bills can, in theory, facilitate compromise. With only the fiscal cliff to worry about, such opportunities will be few and far between.

But the main political lesson from 2010 is that compromise can be politically advantageous. In early November 2010, Gallup showed Obama with 43 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval. But acceding on the tax cuts (and passing a slew of other bills) worked: After a productive lame-duck session, his approval rating crested at 50 percent, with 42 percent disapproving.

One could say this proves the GOP agenda on taxes is more popular, but President Obama's re-election seems to disprove that. More likely, it means America just wants fiscal compromise at the end of the year.