Lame-duck game of chicken
WASHINGTON -- Washington began last week to come to grips with the new order of things, a regime in which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell holds as much sway as the president of the United States.
With the additional leverage that six more Republican senators and a new Republican majority in the House has given him, McConnell is challenging President Obama's agenda for the lame-duck session of Congress and signaling that he is prepared to keep up the fight right into the 2012 election.
Whether it is tax rates, or nuclear arms, Republicans are being assertive about their views and challenging Democrats to step up to the fight. Not one sign has appeared so far of any willingness to compromise.
On the face of it, Democrats hold the high ground rhetorically. When it comes to taxes, Obama is calling for extending the Bush cuts for every family making below $250,000 a year, which he says will take care of 98 percent of the population. Only Republicans are holding out for the millionaires to be included.
But if McConnell and his partners are embarrassed by their roles, they certainly don't show it.
Instead, they are playing chicken with the White House, in effect daring Obama to let rates rise for everyone on Jan. 1, whatever the risk to the fragile economic recovery.
Despite the good news that General Motors, which needed rescue in 2009 from impending bankruptcy, has recovered enough to become a star on Wall Street, the broader economy as this Christmas season opens is still barely limping along.
It makes no sense even to be talking about a broad tax increase. Yet that is what could result from the partisan warfare in Washington.
The international counterpart of this fight is the debate over ratification of the New START treaty with Russia on control of nuclear weapons. A central goal of American foreign policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations has been securing our ability to monitor and limit Russian missile development.
Intrusive examination of Russian facilities ended with the expiration last December of the START treaty negotiated by President George W. Bush. A follow-on agreement, reducing the number of missiles on both sides and guaranteeing the inspections will continue, was negotiated and signed by Obama and the Russians earlier this year.
Obama has urged publicly and privately that it be ratified in the lame-duck session, rather than extend the unmonitored period into some point next year, when the new Senate may or may not get around to it.
At a White House event last week, his call for action was endorsed by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and James A. Baker III, and by Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser.
But those three, representing the Republican foreign policy establishment of the past two administrations, are being countermanded by Jon Kyl, the senator from Arizona who is the No. 2 man to McConnell in the Senate.
McConnell has made it clear that he backs his partner in delaying the treaty, forcing Obama to seek at least nine Republican votes despite the opposition of the GOP leadership.
It is notable that McConnell bases his opposition on the claim that the Senate schedule does not allow sufficient time for debate on the treaty. That is normally a judgment that would be made by the majority leader, Harry Reid, who backs the president in calling for action by the lame-duck session.
It is typical of these Republicans to usurp that role, even if they did not reach their goal of claiming a majority in the Senate elections.
All this signals that they are feeling their oats, and will be hard to deal with.
(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group