A lame duck at large in the world

NEW YORK — With the Obama mandate of 2008 slipping away, Congressional Democrats hope to find a more practical species of Republican sitting in their assigned seats later this month when the "lame duck" Congress reconvenes in Washington.

The outgoing Democratic leadership has a laundry list of unfinished business, domestic and foreign, looming before their pink slips arrive in January. The fate of the Bush tax cuts, whether to increase the national debt limit, the U.S.-Russia START nuclear treaty, a handful of proposed free trade agreements, cap-and-trade legislation, labeling China as a currency manipulator, immigration reform, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ... the list is long and divisive.

Why, you might ask, should the GOP suddenly be reasonable about any of these issues now that the electorate has eviscerated Nancy Pelosi's House majority and, in January, will take control of that chamber when the next Congress convenes?

Democratic lemons, GOP lemonade

The answer is one part realism, one part Machiavellian cynicism: On a small number of these issues —  the debt limit, tax cuts, free trade agreements and possibly even "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" — the incoming GOP leadership has every reason to want to cut a deal. In some cases (tax cuts, free trade), Republicans feel they have the upper hand now and can push through the version of these deals they favor.

President Barack Obama, for instance, favors passage of the South Korea Free Trade Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration and has faced opposition to it primarily from his own party. Now, in Republican minds, could be a time to use that fact to cut a "grand bargain." Similarly, with the Bush tax cuts due to expire on January 1, Republicans can afford to play chicken and demand they be extended for all Americans, including those making more than $250,000, who would see their taxes increase under the plan favored by Democrats. (My bet: Obama accepts a three-year extension which gets it off his plate in the 2012 election cycle, too).

Lame ducks to scapegoats

On a host of other issues, however, the GOP may be eager to get past certain controversies — particularly the question of raising the national debt limit, which must go up in the next few months if the United States is to avoid defaulting on the loans it takes out to fund its day-to-day operations.

Given the next Congress' tea-stained complexion, getting this bit of vital business out of the way before Michelle Bachman's anti-tax radicals are seated may make great sense. Failing to do so risks a U.S. debt default and a collapse in global confidence in the U.S. economy which would make the recent troubles in Europe seem like a passing sun shower. Doing it now, however, gives the GOP leadership cover. (I can hear House Speaker Jim Boehner now: 'Don't blame me, it was the last act of the Pelosi-Reid mafia!')

Knowing how divisive "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is to their base, I wouldn't be surprised if the GOP lets this reform get through, as well, rather than see it reemerge on their watch and force the party to strike a stance which will alienate many independent voters.

Dead on arrival

Prospects for cooperation on some issues simply do not exist. Cap-and-Trade legislation, for instance, is dead and unlikely to rise from the grave for some time. As for carbon tax proposals: if there's a category beyond dead (undead?), it exists there. Critics may blame the GOP for its denial on this issue, or Obama for his decision to prioritize health care; in fact, the real culprit is the economy. Realistically, you can't expect corporations or individuals to make altruistic (if self-preservatory) sacrifices at a time like this.

Democrats may try to "ring-fence" some cherished projects before the changing of the guard, too. PEPFAR, for instance, the Bush-era foreign aid program targeting HIV/AIDS in Africa, will be at risk in the coming austerity climate, along with foreign aid of any kind. Republicans are unlikely to commit to fund multi-year programs in this area, though. Aid to the Palestinian Authority — always a difficult proposition for either party — is particularly vulnerable, and a serious problem since the U.S. provides the bulk of the PA's operating budget each year.

Cans kicked down the road

Potential reforms to immigration law represent an area of potential compromise which would benefit the GOP far more than the Democrats. Obama appears to have few electoral advantages these days, but the xenophobic fringe of the GOP with regard to Mexican immigrants is one such threat to current Republican calculus.

The prospect of "Arizona-style" immigration laws debated at the federal level (some tea party candidates advocate loyalty oaths, neighborhood sweeps and mass deportations) all pose a significant risk to any GOP strategist thinking about national office in 2012.

Passions about immigration tend to be local, and nationally Hispanics loom as large as an electoral bloc as "independents" do during a presidential year, with big states like Texas and California in play if this group is on the move.

But immigration reform bills are difficult, multi-tiered creatures, and pulling this off during a busy lame duck session may be beyond hope. With advocates ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the farm lobby to human rights groups to the White House, a new push next year is likely.

Similarly, many in both parties' leadership would like to see the U.S.-Russia START deal, opposed by some on the right of the GOP's caucus, ratified by the Senate quickly to get it done before the more conservative Congress takes office. But the votes in the Senate for this particular deal (66 are needed) appear certain, so Congress likely will take its time in order to hold hearings next year on the proposed arsenal cuts.

If you think this is lame ...

Analyzing the art of the possible in Washington never yields a pretty picture. The lame duck session, at best, can remove some canards from the political debate (the national debt ceiling), right some moral wrongs (Don't ask, don't tell) and perhaps make the world just a bit safer for humans (START). It won't save the world, the economy or even America's soul: that, for better or worse, awaits consideration by the next Congress.