One day after senators on both sides of the aisle signaled broad support for the deal extending the Bush-era tax cuts, leaders of the two parties indicated how far apart they are on virtually everything else left for the lame-duck session of the Senate.
On Tuesday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid laid out an ambitious three weeks, potentially keeping senators in Washington through the holidays and calling votes on controversial issues ranging from the START nuclear arms pact to the immigration reform DREAM Act.
Republican leaders, by contrast, offered a more modest agenda: pass the tax-cut deal, pass short-term funding for the government to avoid a shutdown, and go home.
The showdown is a matter of political calculus. Republicans want to delay as much business as possible until after Jan. 4, when the new Congress arrives, bringing with it a Republican majority in the House and five more Republicans in the Senate.
While Democrats don't have the numbers to overcome Republican opposition in the Senate – where 60 votes are needed to halt filibusters – they want to force Republicans into controversial votes against key Democratic priorities.
Among the business that Senator Reid wants to take up before Jan. 4:
- Ratification of a new arms control treaty with Russia (START).
- Ensuring funding for the federal government, now set to expire at midnight on Saturday.
- Passing the DREAM Act, a bill to help those brought to the US illegally as children who are in college or have served two years in the US military.
- Repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the Clinton-era ban on openly gay servicemen and women in the military.
- Expanded health care for 9/11 first responders.
- Take up pending nominations.
“There is still Congress after Christmas,” Reid said at a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. “Congress ends on Jan. 4. We’re going to continue working on this stuff until we get it done.”
Republicans are balking. “It is impossible to do all of the things that the majority leader laid out without doing – frankly, without disrespecting the institution and without disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves but all of the staff,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, the deputy Republican leader.
“It happened last year," he added. "It actually has happened in some previous years. It doesn't have to happen this year.”
From Republicans' perspective, much work remains on passing funding for the government. On Tuesday, Democrats released a 2,000-page spending bill to cover some $1.2 trillion of spending for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.
Such catch-all "omnibus" bills are the bane of fiscal conservatives and the tea party movement, which argues that they are so massive that they cannot be adequately scrutinized for earmarks and wasteful spending. They want government funding to be approved in a series of smaller bills, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has signaled his opposition.
“It is completely and totally inappropriate to wrap all of this up into a 2,000-page bill and try to pass it the week before Christmas,” he said. “I'm vigorously in opposition to it.”
Republicans want to pass short-term funding now and take up the issue in earnest in February. In that scenario, the GOP-controlled House could launch its plans to cut spending and ban earmarks for fiscal year 2011 as well as the next fiscal year.
To impede the progress of an omnibus spending bill, several GOP senators announced Tuesday that they will force Democrats to read the entire bill from the floor – one of the most powerful, but rarely invoked, rights of any senator.
“This nearly 2,000-page omnibus filled with thousands of earmarks shows they are still determined to ram through as much big-government spending as they can in this lame-duck session,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina in a statement.
Senator DeMint, an early supporter of tea party-backed GOP freshmen, also objects to funding in the omnibus bill for the “unconstitutional Obamacare law that Americans oppose and have asked Congress to fully repeal.”
Budget watchdog groups, who are still poring over the draft bill to identify "pork-barrel" projects, call this crash omnibus bill an abuse of the budget process. This is the first year that the Senate did not pass any appropriations bills, and the first year since the Budget Act of 1974 that the House and Senate did not pass a budget resolution.
The tax deal represents a rare spot of compromise in the last month of the 111th Congress. House Democrats broadly rejected the deal “as currently written” in a caucus meeting on Dec. 9, especially the move to extend tax breaks for the top 3 percent of earners. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a statement, called it “a bonus tax cut to millionaires and billionaires.”
But House majority leader Steny Hoyer Tuesday signaled a more conciliatory tone in Democratic ranks. Noting the 83 senators who backed the deal on a procedural vote on Monday, Congressman Hoyer said the Senate vote “indicates an urgency that is felt by a broad spectrum that the middle-income taxes not be increased come Jan. 1."
"I think that when you look at this plan, there are some very good things in it from the perspective of growing the economy, reaching out to people who are unemployed, and giving them some additional help,” he said at a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. “There are a lot of things in there that are going to help middle-income families in a tough economy. So people have to weigh that.”
If House Republicans vote together, as they often do on major votes, the tax-cut deal can pass with the support of 39 of the 255 House Democrats. Fiscal conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats sustained heavy losses in the Nov. 2 election, but still number 54 until Jan. 4, and many are expected to back extending the tax cuts.
The final Senate vote on the tax deal is expected Wednesday morning.