Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lame duck Congress 2010 comes to a close

In these final weeks of 2010, the lame duck session of the 111th Congress has been anything but lame. Finally running Congress like it's a race, Democrats are working at an accelerated pace to pass legislation before the clock and their majority in the House of Representatives ends. From defense spending bills to the extension of tax cuts and unemployment benefits, the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' to the approval of the nuclear arms reduction START Treaty, medical care and reimbursement for 9/11 responders to the DREAM Act, all this tireless and often thankless work on behalf of the American people is being done by Democrats and Independents in the House and Senate while Republicans cry about working during the holidays.

In an historic victory for civil rights, President Barack Obama today signed law repealing the discriminatory military policy known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' With the President's signature, the repeal, having passed the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Saturday, will finally allow openly gay men and women to enlist and serve in the United States armed forces.

The ending of DADT, comes at a critical time for President Obama who had pledged to repeal the nearly two-decade long policy during his campaign, but who in recent months has been taking enormous criticism from the liberal base of his party for failing to keep his other campaign promises, namely the ending of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans.

Last week, President Obama signed into law the controversial bipartisan compromise to temporarily extend the Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for the extension of benefits to the unemployed. In the end the president decided it was far more important to secure tax breaks for the middle class and unemployment benefits for nearly 2 million people than to continue fighting the Republicans over unaffordable tax cuts for the wealthy. Nevertheless, Democrats, liberals, and progressives considered this an capitulation to the enemy.

On Saturday, a pathway to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants known as the DREAM Act, failed to gather enough votes for approval in the Senate. The bill would have allowed undocumented children who had entered this country before the age of 15 and have earned a high school diploma or G.E.D. to be eligible for a green card after a 10-year waiting period and the completion of two years in college or in the military. Then to be eligible to apply for citizenship, they would have been required to wait another period of 6 years.

Not quite the 'amnesty' that many Republicans claim it to be, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act was originally introduced by Republican Senator from Utah Orrin Hatch in 2001 and supported in the past by numerous Republicans including Senator John McCain of Arizona, but was voted down in the current lame duck Senate by the majority of Republicans, including Senators Hatch and McCain, who have in recent years taken anti-immigration stances including supporting Arizona's anti-immigrant law SB 1070 that requires local law enforcement to ask people who 'look like they are undocumented' for citizenship papers.

Republicans have been determined to stall and block legislation these past two years and haven't let up in the lame duck session of Congress. Still, despite Republican obstruction, unprecedented threats of filibuster, and heated standoffs, President Obama and Democrats can claim major victories.

Today there is news that Senators have reached a deal on a bill that would provide $4.2 billion for the medical treatment and compensation of first responders on 9/11. The Zadroga bill, named after James Zadroga, a New York City Police Detective who died in 2006 of respiratory disease contracted from his exposure to toxins at Ground Zero, had been blocked repeatedly by Republicans in the Senate, but has now passed thanks in large part to Democratic Senators from New York Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Finally, the Senate today by a vote of 71 to 26 has ratified the START treaty. The ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by President Obama and Russian President Medvedev last April to reduce nuclear warheads by 30 percent and secure loose nuclear material is being heralded as a foreign policy success for President Obama, but more importantly, a huge step at limiting weapons to terrorists and providing for national security.

With votes left on circuit court judges, last speeches to be made, and well wishes left to those retiring or otherwise not returning next month, this year's final hours of the 111th Congress comes to a close. On January 3, 2011, the new Congress will be sworn in. Led by John Boehner, Republicans will have the majority in the House of Representatives; while in the Senate, Mitch McConnell will continue to lead the Republicans as the minority party. If this frantic, hard-fought lame duck session of Congress was a hint at what's to come, then Democrats are just warming up for a fight next year.

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