Calmes: A not-so-lame lame duck Congress gives bipartisanship a try

The archaic expression “lame duck congress” denotes a limping, limited thing. But the current by-election session is poised to prove anything but.

The reason for this productive potential? With the midterm election behind them, members of the House of Representatives and senators – including dozens of individual lame duck members who have either been defeated or are retiring – feel freer to vote how they want, regardless of the ire of their constituents.

That’s actually a good thing in these polarized times, not an anti-democratic impulse. We need bipartisan majorities of lawmakers less committed to the demands of the vocal fringe of their respective political tribes and more responsive to the broader aspirations of the American people.

Spotted portrait illustration of Jackie Calmes

opinion columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes takes a critical look at the national political scene. She has decades of experience reporting on the White House and Congress.

In fact, the truly limping, limited Congress is the one that convenes on January 3, when a slim Republican majority takes control of the House of Representatives. Their extended right margin will likely lead us into two years of legislative paralysis.

The time for constructive governance is now: march on, lame ducks.

Perhaps the best example of the productive dynamic at work is the Respect for Marriage Act, which introduces statewide recognition of same-sex marriages into federal codes. Congress will send President Biden a compromise bill for signature once the House, still under Democrat control, approves the version the Senate passed Tuesday by a 61-36 bipartisan vote. That was just one more yes than was needed to avoid a filibuster by the Senate’s right-wing culture fighters.

For months, enough Republican senators had expressed their support for passing same-sex marriage legislation. Fearing their party’s anti-gay rights base, they persuaded Democratic Senate leaders to postpone voting on the bill until after the midterm elections. Democrats agreed, missing an opportunity to embarrass Republicans over an issue that up to 7 in 10 Americans support. As the old question goes on Capitol Hill, do you want the bill flogged or just a political issue? The Democrats decided they wanted to legislate, despite some grumbling from the left.

That the bill was deemed essential at all is due to widespread fear of the right at the head of the Supreme Court. Not content to overturn Roe vs. Wade after half a century, Justice Clarence Thomas has indicated the court should also “correct the error” in its 2015 ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. While the bill does not codify this right, it does require that, should Thomas ever go down his unpopular path, same-sex marriages performed in a state where such ceremonies remained legal must also be recognized in states where they were banned are.

Even with that compromise, only a dozen Republican senators ended up supporting the bill, and three of them are retiring — each to be replaced by more conservative Republicans. Politico reported that Republicans privately acknowledged that up to 30 Republican senators wanted the bill passed, but most buckled to the right.

For pro-union Democrats, this post-election period has proved conducive to heeding — albeit reluctantly — Biden’s call to impose the deal brokered by the government in September on recalcitrant railroad unions. In back-to-back votes on Wednesday and Thursday, first the House and then the Senate voted with rare rapidity and bipartisanship to put the treaty into effect, just a week before a strike deadline that would have shut down railroads and commerce.

Some railroad workers had called for more guaranteed paid sick leave days, and many pro-union Democrats in Congress supported them, along with some conservative Republicans who wanted to reposition their party as a working-class party. But once again a lame cross-party majority has shown itself more willing than usual to stand up to special interests.

Even the typical eleventh-hour congressional budget brinkmanship could turn out better than expected. There is still no agreement on spending bills for a fiscal year that is already two months old and without approval by December 16 the government is forced to shut down. But after a meeting at the White House this week, leaders from both parties have pledged to try and pass a full-year package, rather than a stopgap that would delay final spending decisions until 2023.

Whether they will succeed remains to be seen, but the motivation is there: Democratic and Republican leaders alike are pessimistic that a Republican-led House can pass much of anything over the next year aside from resolutions impeaching Joe Biden and investigating his son Hunter.

In the meantime, either the spending bill or another priority — a must-pass law approving defense programs — could be the vehicle for other important legislation: aid to areas hit by natural disasters, more aid to Ukraine, and a tightening of an 1887 election law Donald Trump and his possible putschists were misconstrued on January 6, 2021.

As with the same-sex marriage law, bipartisan legislation to revise the 19th-century Electoral Count Act was not politically possible ahead of the midterm elections, nor would it be once Trumpian Republicans are in charge of the House schedule four weeks from now. Now is the time to clarify that a vice president cannot unilaterally throw out state electoral votes and to increase the number of votes required in Congress to challenge a state electoral college.

The ongoing struggles by abstainers in Arizona and Pennsylvania over these battleground states’ recent election results underscore the need for action. And as conservative former federal judge J. Michael Luttig recently told me, Trump and his allies remain “a clear and present danger” heading into 2024.

Enjoy these few weeks of what passes for bipartisanship as Congress waddles to its close. You won’t see much of that in the next two years.

@jackiekcalmes Calmes: A not-so-lame lame duck Congress gives bipartisanship a try

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