The meeting dragged on for an hour, then two hours, then three. Senate Democrats, gathering for the first time since the midterm electorate decimated their ranks, emerged after a Peter Jackson movie’s worth of speeches and venting. They described an honest airing of ideas and problems that ended with real clarity.
“There was no talk of obstructing,” said Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. Like several colleagues, including both of Virginia’s Democratic senators, she’d captured media attention by casting a protest vote against Harry Reid’s continued leadership. “There was talk about us getting back to work and doing our work on behalf of the American people; the things that we know the Americans agree with us on, which is the vast majority of the stuff we have worked on.”
McCaskill’s mid-sentence pivot said a lot. Democrats were not going to “obstruct”—they were, at the same time, pretty confident that the American people still preferred their bills to the GOP’s. The lame duck’s 48-hour return to Washington was defined by moments like this. Partisans conceded absolutely nothing. Democrats installed Senator Elizabeth Warren as a sort of undefined “liaison” to progressives outside Congress. Shortly thereafter, she headed to a meeting of the Democracy Alliance donor conference to give a closed-door speech to donors who wanted to win back the country in 2016. No priorities had been altered or abandoned or softened because of the election results.
The brinkmanship started before the Senate even returned, as Iran hawks started building support for a sanctions package that would pre-empt any Obama administration deal with Iran. That was how Republicans read the midterm results.
“Barack Obama should not be able to make a deal with Iran that’s binding unless Congress approves,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who was re-elected this year.
“We’ve gotten rid of a majority leader who’s pro-Iran for a majority leader who’s anti-Iran,” said Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who’s on the ballot in 2016.
A new sanctions push had been in the hopper for months. Republicans found a fresh cause on the morning they returned. Obamacare “architect” Jonathan Gruber had been caught again and again, in conservative media, explaining how the law had been designed to exploit “the stupidity of the American voter.” On Wednesday and Thursday, multiple Republicans endorsed the idea of hearings into what Alabama’s Jeff Sessions called “a threat to the American republic.”
“I think it would be very important for him to explain himself,” said South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. “One of the reasons why people hold politicians and the political process in such low regard is because of comments like those from the MIT professor.”
Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who’s in line to run the Senate’s oversight committee, stopped short of saying what he’d do. He only insisted that the media keep up the heat on the new Obamacare origin story while Republicans prepared to take over.
“It just shows the hypocrisy, the arrogance that the left really holds, the contempt they should for the American public, and literally how this was a massive consumer fraud,” said Johnson. “I mean, this was deception on the highest level. Let’s face it, President Obama lied to the American public.” He drew out the vowels in lied, for emphasis. “Remember ‘if you like your health care plan, you can keep it?’ I’m pretty sure it was Jonathan Gruber’s analysis that showed the health care law would save every American family $2200 per year.”
As this cauldron bubbled, the White House tossed in a grenade. The Monday morning news that the president would likely sign an executive order legalizing up to five million people currently in the country illegally. In the Senate, both party’s leaders attempted to minimize the news, insisting that it could be delayed and that it would not affect the Congress’s ability to pass a budget. McConnell handled it like a surprise tantrum.
“We’d like for the president to recognize the reality that he has the government that he has,” said the incoming leader. “Not the government that he wishes he had.”
On the right and left of the House, the news was embraced. Conservatives reiterated their call for the “executive amnesty” to be defunded in any spending bill. The Speaker’s office floated the idea of adding Obama’s move to a lawsuit over executive power which, infamously, has yet to be filed. Progressives and immigration reformers were already declaring victory—not just on policy, but for their argument that Obama should have done this before the election.
“He made his decision and he still lost the Senate resoundingly,” said a buoyant Representative Luis Gutierrez, talking to reporters after a marathon press conference at which progressive Democrats praised the possible executive order.
The Illinois congressman borrowed a formulation from Texas Representative Al Green, and compared Obama’s possible gambit to the one Abraham Lincoln used during the Civil War.
“President Lincoln first issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but the slaves were not fully freed, right, until we passed the Thirteenth Amendment,” said Gutierrez. “That’s kind of how I see this process. The president will act, but the job won’t be fully done until the Congress of the United States acts.”
The Congress wouldn’t act soon; it was headed back home, to return the next week. After the Senate’s last vote, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu took the floor to pitch for an actual bipartisan bill, and force the administration to accept the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Yet the bill had become an obvious political gimmick. Landrieu’s opponent in a December runoff, Representative Bill Cassidy, was carrying the House’s version and using it to gild his own campaign.
“If they want to take my name off, put somebody’s else name on it and pass it, so be it,” Landrieu said on Wednesday. “I didn’t come here to see my name in lights.”
On Thursday night, joined by sympathetic colleagues, Landrieu had a new line on the bill. She asked anyone who was watching to remember “who actually brought this to the floor.”