The Monitor's View

Can Washington's lame duck walk into the new year?

This was a remarkably productive lame-duck session that required compromise between Republicans and Democrats. Now that Americans have tasted that, they'll want more -- not less.

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Turning out the lights on an unusually productive lame-duck session yesterday, President Obama pronounced it a “season of progress”:

“We’ve shown in the wake of the November elections that we have the capacity not only to make progress, but to make progress together.”

In just a few weeks, Democrats and Republicans put bows on tax cuts, unemployment benefits, gay rights in the military, a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, food safety, judicial appointments, and health care for 9/11 first responders.

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They were not lovey-dovey about it, but they got the job done on some big items, and that is something many Americans will appreciate – even if some question the validity of a lame-duck session at all. Still, can a season of bipartisanship transform into a lasting New Year’s resolution?

It helps to look at what led to this flurry of agreements. First was the Democratic electoral shellacking that put Obama in a mood to compromise on tax cuts.

That major deal – and the president’s willingness to stick to it in the face of strong criticism from his liberal base – laid the foundation for further agreements.

Other factors contributed: a looming deadline in which tax cuts and jobless benefits would run out, legislation that had general public support, outgoing members of Congress who didn’t have to worry about the next election and – not insignificant – Republicans and Democrats actually talking to each other.

Next year looks quite different. Republicans will control the House and have more filibuster power in the Senate. Incoming members of Congress – many of them supported by the tea party movement – will want to prove their ideological credentials. Instead of a to-do list, Republicans will have more of an “undo” one, attempting to repeal and replace “Obamacare” and modify financial regulatory reform. You can hear the swords clashing already.

The issues will also be substantially more difficult to solve. Deficit reduction is upon us, and that is likely to sharpen the divide between those who favor spending cuts and those who support tax increases.

And yet, and yet. As the nation has just witnessed, crisis and deadlines can actually force the parties to compromise. Next year is full of deadlines, all to do with federal spending. The extension of the federal budget runs out in March, and at some point in the spring, the nation will hit yet another limit on its federal debt.

Failure to show progress on real deficit reduction could spark crisis. International financial markets could go into a serious funk. Budget gridlock could also discourage the private sector, which has yet to rev up its job-creation engine.

Both of those unhappy scenarios could well motivate a divided Congress and the White House to meet in the middle. One area is already shaping up as a possible meeting place: tax reform, in which tax breaks are scaled back in exchange for lower tax rates.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has famously said his No. 1 goal is to make Mr. Obama a one-term president. And Obama assures liberals he’s still got plenty of fight in him, including another run at legalization for illegal immigrants. But now that Americans have tasted the bipartisan results of the Christmas lame duck, they’ll want more meat, less gristle.

There’s no guarantee that this season of progress will extend its life. But it has shown the country what’s possible, and politicians on both sides of the aisle would do well to remember that.

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