WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday approved a nuclear-arms treaty with Russia and a bill to aid 9/11 first responders, wrapping up a lame-duck congressional session that left Democrats jubilant and some Republicans feeling whipsawed.
The treaty, dubbed New START, appeared to be in trouble as recently as this weekend, when the two top Republicans in the Senate came out against it. But as has repeatedly been the case over the final days of the 111th Congress, other GOP senators failed to hold the party line and joined Democrats to pass the accord in a 71-26 vote.
Republican opposition had similarly crumbled in the face of votes on repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gay service members, a food-safety bill, and long-stymied legislation to help 9/11 firefighters and other first responders who are suffering health problems as a result of exposure to the dust and rubble of the World Trade Center.
All in all, it was a remarkable turn of fortune for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democratic leaders, who seemingly were left powerless and dispirited after a rout in the November elections that handed control of the House in the next Congress to the GOP.
The final, lame-duck session of the current Congress was expected to yield little in the way of results, especially after Republican leaders vowed not to allow any legislation through until an agreement on extending the Bush-era tax cuts was reached.
But once that deal was struck with the White House, Democrats turned their attention to remaining priorities that would have been difficult to pass in next year’s more conservative Congress. And to the consternation of some Republicans, they largely succeeded – with the help of moderate members of the GOP.
“I’m amazed at what they were able to do,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. “I call it capitulation. At the end of the day, our weak links were exposed.”
“President Obama was on the verge of being the next Jimmy Carter, and incompetent GOP messaging and legislating has made him into a modern day FDR,” said Brian Darling, a Senate analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation.
There were Republican victories, for sure. The tax-cut deal gave the GOP almost everything it wanted. It was able to filibuster the DREAM Act, legislation that would have established a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, and Democrats were only able to secure a three-month resolution to fund the government, ensuring Republicans will have a strong say in the current budget.
“It seems that the GOP snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Darling said.
And starting in January Republicans will have six more votes in the Senate, making the Democrats’ ability to stay on top that much harder.
But Wednesday there was a sense that Republicans had let a president weakened by the November elections off the mat – and allowed Democrats to seize the high ground on issues relating to civil rights, national security and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“Republicans seemed so intent on cutting a deal on extending tax cuts for all, they lost focus on other important issues,” Darling said. “They just didn’t have the will to fight on New START and don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The 9/11 bill, in particular, traveled from near-certain oblivion to passage by unanimous consent in a matter of days. The key was an agreement Wednesday with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to reduce the overall cost of the legislation. Following the Senate vote, the House passed the bill and sent it to the president’s desk.
But the Republicans weren’t helped by news coverage that portrayed the GOP as on the other side of an issue involving the attacks on New York and Washington. “It’s amazing they chose to make that their last stand,” said Matt Bennett, an analyst with Third Way, a centric Democratic think tank in Washington.
That came on the heels of GOP opposition to a nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia that enables the United States to monitor the former Soviet nuclear stockpile, to a bill that repealed a Pentagon practice that was seen as discriminating against gays and lesbians, and to a bill, the DREAM Act, of high importance to the Latino community. The issues were far from the tax-and-spending message that Republicans had so consistently and successfully employed during the congressional elections.
Republicans “were confronted by a number of issues that were difficult for a lot of members of the caucus to oppose,” Bennett said. “Their discipline crumbled.”
But some other Senate Republicans didn’t share Graham’s view that Reid and the Democrats had gotten the best of them. “I don’t feel that way at all,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who voted in favor of the START treaty. He cited the tax deal and the three-month budget resolution. “We had a very good lame duck, and we set ourselves up to perform on deficit reduction.”
Still, it was hard not to view the START vote as anything but a stumble for the GOP. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, along with Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, led a furious charge against the treaty, the ratification of which required 67 votes.
Instead, the treaty drew four more than that, with 13 Republicans joining every Democrat to ratify the agreement – although supporters had hoped for even more. It was clear, however, as the hours passed Wednesday, that the fight was lost and members wanted to leave Washington for the Christmas holiday.
“Everybody wants to get home,” Kyl lamented, while summarizing his opposition.