There is a sleep-walking quality to the last five days of the lame-duck 96th Congress. It is still passing appropriations, fighting sharp skirmishes, and setting a mood. But when it looks over its shoulder, there is Ronald Reagan.
Outgoing Senate majority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia ornately congratulated incoming majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee. "The people have spoken," he observed majestically. "We accept the decision -- as certainly a temporary one -- and we will do our duty."
Senator Baker replied in kind, rejecting the notion that the new Senate Republican dominance is "temporary." Referring to an earlier overturn in 1954 when Democrats captured the Senate, he commented, "I expect that is the sort of way Bill Knowland [former Senate majority leader William F. Knowland (R) of California] felt in 1954 and it took 26 years to change that."
In short, Republicans still pinch themselves. After next month's inaugural they will hold White House and Senate, and lack only the US House of Representatives. The lame-duck session already belongs to a bygone world.
Bitterness and exultation have been muted. First thoughts of defiant partisan battles have vanished. In an act of political accommodation the Democratic Senate and House passed a compromise budget resolution that gives leeway for a proposed $35 billion Reagan tax cut early next year. Some Democrats and Republicans are worried about it. But they have opened the way for the "Reagan cut": It is his responsibility.
The lame-duck session convened Wednesday, Nov. 12, in a procedure prescribed (with modifications) by the Founding Fathers, some of whom took two weeks by horseback to reach Philadelphia, the old capital. In other democracies, outgoing parliaments do not legislate. In this case critical issues are in dispute but are likely to be postponed. The big congressional reform that was supposed to guarantee a balanced budget appears to be falling apart. One fiscal year has already ended (Sept. 30) and another begun (FY 1981), but Congress is still arguing about both of them.
The pending Justice Department appropriation bill carries a controversial rider forbidding federal assistance to enforce racial balance. President Carter has been urged to veto this if it reaches him. It could still be an act for the history books.
Appropriation bills may not pass in the foreign aid field, and in matters affecting health, education, and welfare. In that case Congress can pass a continuing resolution extending matters several months.
The lame-duck session has boosted defense expenditures about $6 billion more than Mr. Carter requested.
Another last-minute issue is the proposed compromise on the $1.2 billion to $ 1.6 billion "super-fund" for immediate cleanup of toxic waste dump sites and spills.
The session could not decide on the proposed criminal code reform measure, under debate for 15 years. Once again Congress postponed it.
No lame-duck session ends without a filibuster. Sen. Robert Morgan (D) of North Carolina, with Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire, oppose confirmation of Harvard law Prof. Stephen Breyer to the US Court of Appeals in Boston. The senators charged that as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Breyer helped block confirmation of Charles Winberry (Morgan campaign manager) to a judgeship. So they oppose Breyer.
As its name indicates, a lame-duck session is in-between; it is neither a goose nor a swan.