But the Democrats got much more than that. Had the Republican
minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, carried out his threat to shut
down the Senate unless the Bush tax cuts were extended -- and since he
presided over 91 filibusters this Congress, there's no reason to think he
wouldn't have -- nothing that has happened since the tax deal was struck
would have occurred. And a lot has happened.
Along with the stimulus provisions, Democrats have managed, with at
least some Republican support, to repeal the military's ''don't ask, don't
tell'' policy forbidding gays and lesbians from serving openly; pass a
far-reaching food-safety bill that appeared dead; ratify the New START
Treaty with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons; and confirm a whole host of
judicial nominees who had been languishing for months. Not everyone is
happy about the break in the logjam. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of
South Carolina called it a ''capitulation'' of ''dramatic proportions'' to
a party that had just gotten trounced. ''The lame duck session,'' he
complained on Fox News, ''was meant to basically transition from one
Congress to the next, not take every special-interest item the liberals
want and pass it in two weeks.''
It's tempting at this time of year (especially for a newspaper
columnist!) to suggest that this sudden surge of bipartisanship occurred
when lawmakers' hearts swelled, as the Grinch's did in the end, when they
heard the cries of ''unemployment'' and ''over-taxation'' ringing out from
Whoville and were moved to address them. Let's resist that temptation. A
more compelling analysis -- Grinch-like in the ordinary sense -- is that
Democrats and Republicans are concentrating on different battlefields, and
far from signaling any enduring harmony and goodwill, are simply
positioning themselves for the fights ahead.
Graham's complaints notwithstanding, McConnell and other Republican
leaders have set themselves up to drive a much harder bargain in the two
Last week, McConnell succeeded in blocking the omnibus spending bill
to fund the government next year, forcing a compromise that will deny
Democrats money budgeted to implement the new health care and financial reform
laws. That spending bill will be revisited next spring, when Republicans
will be more powerful and better able to shape it to their interests. The
tax deal, too, even beyond the two-year extension of the Bush cuts, will
yield future benefits. That extension will expire in the middle of the 2012
presidential campaign, which will allow Republicans to make the same
threats about tax increases that have just proved so effective. Even the
deficit-funded stimulus measures can be viewed as strengthening the
Republicans' hand next year, when Congress has to raise the debt ceiling.
Grassroots pressure to oppose this will be even greater in light of the
larger revenue shortfall. In this sense, McConnell has operated in much the
same way that Bill Belichick does during the NFL draft, forgoing immediate
gratification for a bigger payoff down the road.
Hardly the stuff of Christmas carols, to be sure. Still, season's
greetings from Washington.