Reconsidering End Times

Of all the developed nations the United States stands alone as the one which is deeply religious, in the sense that we take such things seriously. France has the cool gothic cathedrals, and the Italians have the Pope, and there’s still an Archbishop of Canterbury – but no one much cares. Public life there, and political life, is secular. People fix things, or mess them up magnificently – and no one talks of God having anything to do with it, or of doing God’s work. Over on the other side of the pond God has become somewhat like the Cheshire Cat – finally only a smile, and then that smile itself disappears. If things need getting done, which they do, it’s up to us to do them. There’s not a whole lot of God-talk.

That’s not so here. Consider what the new head of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Economy thinks about all the reports that carbon emissions, measured in parts-per-million, are at the threshold between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” and the resulting global warming because of that could melt a whole lot of ice and raise sea levels in ways that would not be good at all. It seems that Jim Shimkus isn’t worried at all:

The earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood…. I appreciate having panelists here who are men of faith, and we can get into the theological discourse of that position, but I do believe God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.

Today we have about 388 parts per million in the atmosphere. I think in the age of dinosaurs, when we had the most flora and fauna, we were probably at 4,000 parts per million. There is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet – not too much carbon.

So this is a theological issue – and one of the reasons that the Republicans retook the House is that God’s word is infallible, unchanging and perfect. Everyone knows that. And there was that promise in Genesis. Nothing needs to be done, because there’s no problem. The man was reelected and given a committee chairmanship by his winning party. It seems the American people decided a House of Representatives that vows to do nothing is what it will be. God will take care of things. He always does. We are a nation of faith.

Others may think that’s not exactly the best way to run the country, but enough Americans think that’ll do just fine and voted accordingly. And you know these sorts of people – they talk of God as more than a disappearing smile. He does things, or sends signs. This week it was a total lunar eclipse, or the six days of rain here in Los Angeles. You need to know your signs. We had the coolest summer on record out here, and in late September the highest temperature ever recorded downtown – 113 before the sensors failed at noon – and then the heaviest rain in many decades – six days of it, with the last day bringing a massive storm – heavy rain all afternoon, and thunder and lightning too. And then it stopped, or slid off to points east. And in late afternoon, with some rain still falling, there was a double rainbow over the Hollywood Hills – God’s sign that He’s not angry with us any longer. Noah saw one too, you know.

That may have been a sign, and if you follow such things you regularly check the Rapture Index – that keeps track of activities that are indicators of when the Rapture might occur, when Christians will be gathered together in the air to meet Christ and the End Times begin. The index is pretty high these days. End Times must be near.

But in Washington it was just the end of the current congress, a lame duck session taking care of business – the fag end of a bad business, where everyone was mad at everyone else, and all the things the Democrats wanted to get done, and had the majority of votes to do, were blocked by the Republicans in the Senate, who with their forty-one votes could use procedural rules to block any of it from coming to a vote, no matter what the majority wanted – forty-one votes always trumps fifty-nine. As Obama looks haplessly on, Real Americans cheer as this and that goes down, never to be considered again, and everyone goes home. That was the way it was supposed to work.

But this time it didn’t. It was the political equivalent of the apocalypse. It was end times in terms of congressional business, but it must have seemed End Times – with those capital letters – to the Republicans.

A friend put it this way in an email:

Today, seeing the Senate pass the 9/11 Responders bill and START and Obama signing DADT – I don’t quite understand why the Republicans are giving up after spending all year stalling. I mean, especially after having “won” the midterms, wouldn’t they get past the need to compromise if they just waited a few weeks? The funny thing is, it’s starting to look like Obama got a whole lot done in his first years. Is that really what the Republicans were thinking would happen?

Yes, the Senate approved the new START treaty on the afternoon of Wednesday, December 22, 2010 – by a wide margin. And the Republicans really screwed that one up. And it came off as a major victory for Obama, who had made the treaty his top priority for the lame-duck session. Obama said so, but the Republicans ended up making this an even bigger win for him than it should have been. Adam Serwer, a day earlier, had explained it all:

Early in the Obama administration, Senate Republicans settled on a strategy of total procedural obstruction…. The problem is, the New START treaty is about as controversial as a tuna salad sandwich. Not only has the current military leadership and every living Republican Secretary of State endorsed it, but former Republican national security stalwarts such as Brent Scowcroft are “baffled” by the GOP’s decision to obstruct ratification. New START is also popular – a CNN poll from November shows three quarters of Americans support ratifying the treaty.

If New START is ratified, the only reason it’ll be considered an Obama victory is because Republicans decided to oppose it without any real reason for doing so. If the Senate had simply ratified the treaty without any fuss, Obama might have gotten a few days of positive press, but it wouldn’t have been treated as a major political success. Because Senate Republicans turned ratification into a huge partisan brawl, a Democratic president renewing an agreement with Russia designed by Republican presidents now looks like a massive victory for the administration.

And that’s how it worked out. The Republicans created a devastating loss for themselves. And Steve Benen comments here:

New START, which could have very well been negotiated by Reagan himself, builds on the kind of counter-proliferation policy that’s enjoyed broad international support for a generation. Had Republicans treated this the way previous Senates had – which is to say, ratified it fairly quickly with overwhelming support – the political world would have barely have blinked an eye.

But Republicans instead decided to turn this into a defining presidential test, and a challenge to Obama’s mettle as a world leader. Left with no choice, Obama fought back as hard as he could, rallying support from the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs, foreign leaders from around the globe, eight former secretaries of state from both parties, five former secretaries of defense from both parties, seven former Strategic Command chiefs, national security advisers from both parties, nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces – even a former Republican president (H. W. Bush). The president put the full weight of his administration behind this, to ensure success.

And it worked. The result is a victory for the White House that’s even more significant than if the GOP hadn’t needlessly picked a misguided fight.

And it made it seem like End Times. This wasn’t supposed to happen. And Fred Kaplan summed it up – “The Republican leadership made this a purely political battle and – fresh off what had seemed a triumphant election season – suffered an astonishingly egregious defeat.” And Benen adds this:

There’s no denying how significant Republican gains were in the midterms, and the leverage the GOP will try to exploit in the next Congress. But it’s President Obama who’s ending 2010 on a winning streak, looking stronger than at any point in quite a while.

But Benen also took a larger view:

Indeed, it’s not quite finished yet, but has anyone ever seen such a prolific lame-duck session? Let’s see, there’s the tax deal, DADT repeal, New START, the most sweeping food-safety bill in 70 years, the Zadroga 9/11 health bill, the defense authorization bill, more than a few judicial nominee confirmations, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting.

Obviously, there were serious setbacks. The DREAM Act deserved an up-or-down vote, but fell to a Republican filibuster, and the failure of the omnibus was bad news.

Benen considers this important, and in some cases, even historic:

After the midterms, the conventional wisdom was that President Obama was severely weakened, and shouldn’t expect to pass anything else on his to-do list for the rest of his term. Obviously, the rules of the game will change dramatically with the start of the new Congress, but after this lame-duck session, the president actually appears stronger now than he did before the election.

Greg Sargent in his Washington Post blog offers this:

So this afternoon, the Senate voted to ratify New START after months of partisan wrangling and passed the bill giving health benefits to 9/11 heroes after, well, years of partisan wrangling. This, on the same day that Obama signed the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell, a civil rights milestone. All in all, a pretty productive day.

It’s obvious enough that Obama’s rebound was remarkable, in that he has defied expectations of gridlock to rack up a fusillade of major accomplishments that have placed him in a stronger position than many expected.

Sargent argues that Obama will emerge from all this smelling like a rose and Republicans will smell like something else entirely. And Sargent cites the new CNN poll – which Sargent notes proves that Obama “won” the session hands down. And Sargent explains the poll:

It finds that voters approve of his handling of the session, 56-41. By contrast, only 42 percent of Americans approve of the GOP’s handling of it, versus 53 percent who disapprove.

The poll has more. It finds that Americans think that Obama has done enough to compromise with Republicans, 59-37. By contrast, a big majority, 68 percent, thinks Republicans have not done enough to compromise with Obama, while only 28 percent think they’ve done enough.

In other words, Obama may be getting much of the credit for the compromising that made the lame duck session a success. Since the public strongly supported the tax cut compromise, it seems likely these bad numbers from Republicans flow from their opposition to the New START treaty and to repealing don’t ask don’t tell, both of which have strong public support. This would seem to confirm Adam Serwer’s theory that Republicans made the session even more of a win for Obama by holding out against the remaining items on his agenda, in defiance of public opinion.

And he sums this up nicely:

This has at bottom been a protracted standoff between the President and his chief antagonists in the GOP. And if Obama’s strategy has been to position himself as the adult-in-chief in a capital full of squabbling children – as many have observed – the fact that Obama is standing taller than both Republicans and Democrats suggests his game plan has – for now, anyway – clearly worked.

Of course the Republicans are set to seize the momentum right back – they have the House now – but Sargent argues Obama’s own critics might lighten up a bit now:

Dems should revel in the fact that this has been one of the most productive lame duck sessions in memory, coming after two years that — for all the ups and downs — were also among the most productive in memory. It’s an extraordinary and remarkably smooth conclusion to an extraordinary and very bumpy two years.

And Obama himself wasn’t shy about it:

Buoyant in political victory, President Barack Obama on Wednesday wrapped up a long, rough year in Washington by rejoicing in a rare, bipartisan “season of progress” over tax cuts, national security and civil justice. Halfway through his term, he served notice to his skeptics: “I am persistent.”

That seemed like a warning. It was an odd day, of course, full of portents and omens.

Or for the more mundane way of seeing it, there’s Ezra Klein on why this particular lame-duck session was so productive:

So far, the lame-duck session has managed to pass an $850 billion tax-cuts-and-stimulus deal, the repeal of DADT, the Defense Authorization bill, a continuing resolution to keep funding the federal government, the START treaty, the food-safety bill, and probably a few more pieces of legislation I’m forgetting.

This is vastly more than anyone expected, and even if I’m disappointed by the failure of the omnibus spending bill (for reasons explained here) and the DREAM act, I can see why Sen. Lindsey Graham summed up the session by saying, “When it’s all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch.”

Well, that’s so unfair. Or as Klein argues, that’s so unaware:

It wasn’t really Harry Reid who ate their lunch (and how much better would that quote have been if Graham had said, “Harry Reid drank our milkshake”?). It was the Republicans. DADT repeal passed because Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Scott Brown voted with the Democrats. The tax deal went through because a host of Republicans voted with the Democrats. Same for START, the food-safety bill and the Department of Defense authorization. If the bill helping 9/11 responders get medical benefits passes, that too will be because of Republican support.

And it passed, for that reason, which makes Klein’s view important:

The question is why the Republicans didn’t just drag their feet and let things expire and then come back to everything in 2011, when they’ll have more allies in the Senate and control of the House? As Graham said, “With a new group of Republicans coming in, we could get a better deal on almost everything.”

The answer, I think, is that there are plenty of Senate Republicans who aren’t too comfortable with the class of conservatives who got elected in 2010. These legislators knew they had to stick with McConnell before the election, as you can’t win back the majority by handing the president lots of legislative accomplishments. But now that the election was over, the bills that had piled up were, in many cases, good bills, and if they didn’t pass now, it wasn’t clear that they’d be able to pass later.

In short, they did the right thing:

The incumbent – and the outgoing – Republicans know that the fact that Republicans will have more power in 2011 doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll use that power to pass sensible legislation. So those of them who wanted to pass sensible legislation decided to get it all done now, even if that meant handing Reid and Obama a slew of apparent victories in the lame-duck session.

It seems enough of them were frightened by what their party had become. Join the club.

And from Dan Roem, consider this:

One of Pres. Obama’s biggest supporters in the Senate in the past week is not even a member of his own party: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Murkowski supported the president’s position on the Senate’s four biggest votes since last Wednesday…. No Senate Republican voted for all four bills other than Murkowski. And the senior senator from Alaska, who became a national figure this year when she defeated attorney Joe Miller (R) with her write-in campaign, has actually been a more reliable vote for the president than 18 members of the Senate Democratic caucus since Dec. 15.

I suspect these votes are not well received by Republican leaders, but don’t forget, Murkowski not only doesn’t care, she actually has an incentive to annoy them — her party did very little to help her re-election bid in Alaska this year, and actively sought to defeat her during her successful write-in bid.

Steve Benen fills in the detail:

Indeed, even after the election was done and it appeared that Murkowski had won, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a message to its supporters with a subject line that read, “Help Joe Miller in Alaska.” The email, published over Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) signature, suggested Republicans should send money to help Miller fight Murkowski in court. …

Looking ahead, this may not matter too much in the next Congress, since Dems would need seven GOP votes to overcome Republican filibusters, and even if Murkowski joins Snowe, Collins, Brown, and Kirk in some sort of “Mod Squad,” that won’t be enough.

That said, it’s nevertheless good to see a Republican breaking ranks on key issues as often as Murkowski is now.

Benen also notes John Cole saw this coming over a month ago – Murkowski would be the Republicans’ Lieberman. And Benen suggests Murkowski just might like the sound of that.

And this Washington Post item assesses the damage done to the Republicans:

When the lame-duck session of Congress started more than a month ago, President Obama looked defeated and deflated, publicly acknowledging the “shellacking” his party had taken in the November midterm elections.

Now, a six-week session that was expected to reflect a weakened president has turned into a surprising success. On Wednesday, Obama signed into law the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service members, and the Senate approved a new nuclear treaty with Russia that the president had declared a top priority.

Those accomplishments come after Obama successfully negotiated a free-trade agreement with South Korea, reached a deal with Republicans that extended unemployment benefits and prevented a tax hike for millions of Americans and signed a bill that will make school lunches healthier.

This blitz of bill signings completes a dramatic first two years for the nation’s first black president that included the enactment of arguably the most major liberal policies since the Johnson administration but also the Democrats’ biggest loss of House seats in 72 years.

It must seem like End Times for Republicans these days. John Cornyn could only come up with this – “Our leverage forced the White House to abandon its ‘class warfare’ rhetoric, stop pandering to the president’s left-wing base, and do the right thing for American taxpayers and job creators.” And everything he tried to stop passed easily. That’s not exactly a victory for his side.

Of course there was a victory for that side, as Alex Pareene explained here:

Intransigent “deficit hawk” Tom Coburn is finally dropping his threat to single-handedly obstruct the 9/11 first responders healthcare bill in the Senate. He’s dropping his threat because he won: The bill, which already went from $7.4 to $6.2 billion in benefits and compensation, is now down to $1.5 for benefits and $2.7 for compensation. In addition to the cut in funding, the fund will now permanently close after five years.

Coburn’s original objection was that the bill was too pricey – though it was paid for by closing tax loopholes, which means that his real objection was that rich people were going to have to pay for non-rich people to have their illnesses treated.

That’s one way of looking at it, and Pareene adds context:

Coburn voted yes on exempting millionaires from the estate tax, and yes on tax cuts on capital gains and dividends, but he has been fighting fiercely to stop the government from paying for treatment for 9/11 first responders with cancer. (Un-fun fact: Coburn’s a medical doctor and a cancer survivor himself!)

Democrats want to pass the bill using unanimous consent, so that they can finish the lame duck session before Christmas, but obviously that allows Coburn to block the bill by himself. A cloture vote would require breaking a filibuster, which might be possible, but would allow Coburn to delay the vote until next week – at which point the House may not come back into session to vote. So negotiators were forced to acquiesce to Coburn’s demand that the bill become significantly less generous.

Well, if you can’t be right, be mean. But the bill passed. Something is better than nothing for the sick and dying.

Of course Obama said this:

During his news conference, Obama said, “I think it’s fair to say that this has been the most productive post-election period we’ve had in decades, and it comes on the heels of the most productive two years that we’ve had in generations.”

He later added: “If there’s any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it’s that we are not doomed to endless gridlock. We’ve shown in the wake of the November elections that we have the capacity not only to make progress, but to make progress together.”

Maybe so, but the Party of No may have other ideas. They’ll work out some other way to block everything, to prove Obama can’t get anything done.

But how will they do it this time? We live in Strange Times. Obama got most everything be wanted done through Congress and to his desk for signature. And he doesn’t seem to be an incompetent lightweight. That can shatter your worldview. It must be End Times.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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