WASHINGTON — The passage Wednesday of an $858 billion tax cut deal was an early Christmas present to Americans and a final-hour show of cooperation from a Senate that has agreed on little in the past two years.
But as quickly as the bipartisanship surfaced, it vanished as Democrats began a frenzied push to score legislative victories before the lame duck session expires and their power weakens with the start of the new Congress on Jan. 5.
Democrats are racing against the clock, literally.
Senators hope to pass a nuclear arms treaty, and, with their counterparts in the House, approve a major immigration bill known as the Dream Act that would create a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants, and repeal the military's policy barring gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly.
Oh, and they are pushing for a $1.1 trillion spending plan for 2011 and want to clear a backlog of court nominees.
"This is as heavy a load as we've ever had," said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.
Immediately after the tax vote Wednesday, Senate Democrats began angling for passage of a new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms treaty, a priority of President Barack Obama that has been on the agenda for months.
A group of Republicans insisted that the issue be kicked to the new year, saying no treaty has ever been ratified by a lame duck Congress.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., threatened to force the bill to be read aloud, word for word, a process that would have taken at least 12 hours. (He later backed down.) At the same time, DeMint accused Democrats of disrespecting Christmas by stretching things out, a contradiction that drew a strong rebuke from Democratic leader Harry Reid.
Reid said the Senate could be in session Sunday and threatened to bring lawmakers back after Christmas if necessary, noting the 111th Congress does not end until Jan. 4.
"Senate Republicans need look no further than themselves in casting blame for the predicament we're in right now," a visibly angry Reid said Wednesday, noting the GOP has employed 87 filibusters over the past two years.
"These are additional days of wasted time we could be using to pass legislation to get home for the holidays," Reid added. "Yet some of our Republican colleagues have the nerve to whine of having to stay and actually do the work that the American people pay us to do."
Republicans shot back that Reid was rushing important policy decisions, not the least of which was the massive spending bill, unveiled only Tuesday, that contains $8 billion in earmarks, a good share for Florida. Republicans want to pass a stopgap spending measure.
"Pass the tax legislation and keep the lights on," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. "Everything else can wait."
Waiting, of course, has its upside.
The GOP captured the House in November and whittled down the Democratic majority in the Senate. Sweeping legislative victories, such as the health care law passed by the Senate last Christmas Eve, are unlikely for the next two years. Compromise will be necessary, though the hard feelings on both sides over the tax deal portend rough times ahead.
For now, there's a small window for Democrats. And whatever doesn't come up, or lacks the votes to pass, is legislatively dead. Advocates will have to begin again, building their case and working their way through the next Congress.
Experts say their unfinished agenda is one of the busiest schedules on record for a lame duck session.
"It's an ugly process that has been made worse by the partisan division and the permanent campaign. Everything is a campaign issue," said veteran congressional scholar Norm Ornstein.
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The Capitol corridors have been a confusing space the past week.
The tax debate ground the machinery to a near standstill, with senator after senator filling the allotted 30 hours of debate time with monologues for or against the proposal.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stood at the podium for 8½ hours Friday to protest the legislation because it continues tax breaks for the wealthy.
Anticipation kept building over the pile of unresolved legislation. Even veteran lawmakers had trouble keeping track.
"There's so many conflicting things swirling around," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Tuesday, declining to predict whether the treaty would come up.
"Is it proceeding?" Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked reporters, unaware the House had planned to bring to the floor a bill to abolish the "don't ask, don't tell'' policy barring gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly.
The House approved the repeal Wednesday, by 250-175, sending it to the Senate. In turn, the House will begin debate on the tax deal today.
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A lame duck session occurs after an election of a new Congress but before the current one expires. The name is taken from 18th century Britain, where bankrupt businessmen were deemed "lame," or vulnerable, like a game bird injured by shot, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Lame duck sessions — there have been 17 since 1940 — have been quick or called only to deal with appropriations, or they have been long and contentious.
The session after the 1982 election was used to increase the gasoline tax, and the House managed to give itself a 15 percent raise. In 1998, only the House came in to vote on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
But rarely do the sessions include as much heavy legislation as this one.
"Republicans have had a strategy of complete opposition to the president's agenda, and to an unprecedented extent used the Senate filibuster to delay or kill many initiatives," said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the centrist-to-liberal Brookings Institution. "The majoritarian House passed more than 400 bills that were not taken up by the Senate."
Some Democrats find fault in their own party, pointing to the decision to focus last year on health care, a controversial and complex issue that took months to resolve.
"My preference was always to have gone first on jobs, the economy and debt reduction and taken up health care second," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. "But that's history. We are where we are."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.