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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 12/21/2010

Winners and Losers of the Lame Duck Congress

By Chris Cillizza

The U.S. Capitol was the site of a surprisingly productive lame-duck Congressional session this fall. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The lame duck session of the 111th Congress hasn't uttered its last quack -- bad metaphor alert! -- but it's getting close.

The last few weeks have been defined by a sort of "hurry up and wait" approach to governance but it's hard to argue that Congress hasn't chalked up a series of accomplishments -- from the tax compromise deal struck by President Obama and congressional Republicans to the Lazarus-like passage of the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

So, who had the best lame duck? And who had the worst? The Fix picks our winners and losers below. Have thoughts of your own? Add them in the comments section.


President Obama: Coming off a self-described "shellacking" at the ballot box on Nov. 2, many people speculated that Obama's presidency had been dealt a mortal blow. Or not. While there is an argument to be made that the tax compromise was a lopsidedly good deal for Republicans and that the passage of "don't ask, don't tell" happened without any real pushing by the White House, it probably doesn't matter. Obama got to look presidential in this lame duck -- a man focused on what's good for the country rather than what's good for a political party. And, his willingness to be the salesman-in-chief increased exponentially during the lame duck -- perhaps the result of the aforementioned shellacking -- a good sign for Democrats as they look to 2012.

Joe Lieberman: The Connecticut Senator was, without question, the leading proponent of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" in the Senate and kept the fire burning for the measure even when it initially failed (and many of its most even ardent supporters thought the moment was lost). The storyline that Lieberman somehow totally redeemed himself in the eyes of Democratic primary voters in advance of 2012 is a fallacy -- the negative feelings run too deep -- but he may have lessened the intensity of the ill will. (Sidenote: We still believe Lieberman's best and probably only path to victory in 2012 is as an independent.)

Scott Brown: Brown proved to be the quintessential moderate in the lame duck -- voting for "don't ask, don't tell", against the DREAM Act and for START -- just the sort of profile he needs to win a full term in 2012 in one of the most Democratic -- but independent-minded -- states in the country. Brown also got another piece of good news during the lame duck in the form of a poll that showed him with a 53 percent approval rating -- a surprisingly strong position for any Republican in the Bay State.

Bernie Sanders: Sanders' talk-a-thon to protest the tax compromise legislation was one of the lasting images of the lame duck session. While it ultimately didn't amount to much, Sanders' stand symbolized the anger and resentment liberals felt about the deal and turned the Vermont Senator into a progressive hero.

C-SPAN: The Fix's favorite television network yet again proved indispensable for political junkies. Between the Sanders' fili-Bernie and the late-night tax votes in the House, it was must-see TV.

Joe Biden: When Obama picked the Delaware Senator as his vice president, it was widely cast as a sign that he was serious about governing, not just campaigning. Biden made the President look good by not only negotiating a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on taxes but also taking the heat from House Democrats over the bill. (Remember that Biden campaigned for a slew of those same House Members over the past two years, making him the most credible messenger the White House had on the issue.)

Mitch McConnell: Incoming House Speaker John Boehner may be getting the lion's share of press attention these days but it was McConnell who scored the major GOP victories in the lame ducks. Extension of the Bush era tax cuts for all income levels was something that not even the most optimistic GOp strategists thought they could get. And, McConnell won a game of chicken with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) on the omnibus spending bill, which Democrats were forced to pull. McConnell also showed that he is, at heart, the most practical of politicians -- switching his view on an earmark ban in the wake of an election where voters made clear they hated the earmarking process.

Acronyms: Between START, DREAM and DADT, the lame duck session amounted to a golden age for acronyms. IMHO it was TMI but WYSIWYG.


John McCain: The Arizona Senator went all out to block repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and failed. (Make sure to read Dana Milbank's column on McCain's reaction to passage.) Gone, apparently, is McCain the deal maker who was seemingly in the middle of every major piece of legislation moved in the Senate during the 2000s. In his place is a more contrarian McCain that emerged during his 2010 primary fight against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

Joe Barton: The Texas Republican learned in this lame duck that the past always catches up with you. After drawing national headlines for apologizing to the head of BP in the midst of the Gulf Coast oil spill, Barton was passed over as the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee for the 112th Congress despite being the most senior Republican on the panel.

Liberal House Democrats: Liberals in the House huffed and puffed but ultimately couldn't rally the votes for an estate tax amendment and watched as the compromise worked out between President Obama and McConnell on taxes passed through their chamber unchanged. And, there's little to look forward to in the next Congress when liberals will be relegated to minority status.

Joe Manchin: Things were never going to be easy for the West Virginia Democratic Senator. He represents a state where his national party is decidedly unpopular and is far more conservative than his colleagues. But, Manchin's no-show on the "don't ask, don't tell" and DREAM votes over the weekend and his reasoning -- a long planned Christmas party! -- reeked of politics. Not good.

Congressional Doomsayers: For all the talk that Congress had reached epic new lows in terms of partisanship and productivity, the House and Senate wracked up a number of legislative accomplishments in a pretty short period of time. (Leave aside the fact that much of the agenda of the lame duck was put there because lawmakers didn't want to tackle the dicey issues pre-election.) The question now: Will the momentum of the lame duck keep up? The answer, sadly, is probably not. But the last six weeks proved that Congress still can do things -- big things -- when they so choose.

By Chris Cillizza  | December 21, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Winners and Losers  
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