Senate Republicans dig in heels during lame duck on DADT, DREAM Act, UI, START treaty

Senate Republican leaders on Tuesday dug in their heels against doing anything more than passing an extension of the Bush era tax cuts and a continuing resolution to keep funding the federal government before heading home for Christmas.

Senate Republicans are loathe to pass — at least this year:

  • a repeal of the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy regarding gays in the military
  • the DREAM Act that would give incentives for citizenship to children of illegal immigrants
  • an extension of unemployment insurance
  • the START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia

“What we should be doing in this session … is to keep tax rates where they are, freeze spending, fund the government, go home,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican.

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that it was possible for Congress to reach an agreement on tax cuts, pass a continuing resolution, and pass legislation on DADT, DREAM, UI and START, all in about three weeks.

“The Senate’s going to be here, and there’s … there’s time to do the people’s business,” Gibbs said, drawing raised eyebrows from reporters in the White House briefing room.

That was at odds with the prognosis given by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, after a meeting at the White House with President Obama.

McConnell said that there was “widespread agreement” in the meeting “that the two most important things to do obviously is to decide how we’re going to fund the government for the next 10 months, and decide that the tax issue in the Senate.”

“We’re wrestling with a lot of other matters that may have some level of importance, but aren’t in the same category as deciding what everybody’s tax rates are going to be and deciding how we’re going to fund the government,” McConnell said. “So I hope we can sort of reshuffle our priorities on the Senate side, and get them in line with these two big issues, and hopefully wrap up the 111th Congress.”

Oddly, neither side mentioned the DocFix, a continually recurring and thorny problem related to Medicare reimbursement rates for health care providers. Congress has repeatedly had to pass extensions of this program – the Sustainable Growth Rate – since it was enacted to control the growth of Medicare in 2002.

Congress passed a one-month DocFix extension this week, but will need to pass a longer version in December if they want to avoid payment cuts of roughly 25 percent starting in January. A one-year extension would cost roughly $17 billion, and in order for something like that to gain enough support Republicans and Democrats will need to agree on what to cut to pay for it.

Senate GOP aides said the expansive White House rhetoric about what is possible in light of all this sprung from an unwillingness to step on the toes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who made campaign promises to pass legislation on gays in the military and for immigrants.

A spokesman for Alexander accused Reid and Democrats of playing politics while the Senate should be focused on jobs.

“Republicans, Americans agree the economy should be Congress’ top priority … but all Democrats can agree on is more politics as usual,” said a press release from Alexander spokesman Nick Simpson.

Even Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, indicated that time constraints will keep Reid from crossing out most of his wish list items before the New Year.

“People are frustrated, generally speaking, because we all understand the biggest priority is jobs. Everybody knows that. But there are some limits as to how much we’re going to be able to do in a three-week, lame-duck session, by definition. Everybody understands that,” Kerry said.

“So the sooner we get to the new session, and the sooner we can get going with America’s business, the happier the lot of us will be,” he said.

The White House remained adamant that the START treaty should be passed this year. And the release by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates of a report recommending the passage of legislation repealing DADT elevated that issue to front-burner status after it had gone somewhat dormant for a time.

“Now that we have completed this review, I strongly urge the Senate to pass this legislation and send it to the president for signature before the end of this year,” Gates said, explaining that his urgency was driven by concern that if Congress did not pass a law the issue would be resolved by the courts and would be far more disruptive to the military than if the process is laid out more deliberately by Congress.

Obama added his voice to Gates’.

“The House of Representatives has already passed the necessary legislation,” the president said in a paper statement. “Today I call on the Senate to act as soon as possible so I can sign this repeal into law this year and ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally.”

Reid was noncommittal about bringing up a vote on DADT, saying he was looking forward to hearings chaired by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, later this week.

But he did say he would seek a vote on the DREAM Act this week.

“We think this should be voted on now,” Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat, told a group of several high school students from Maryland lobbying on the DREAM Act inside a Senate office building.

This article has been updated.

E-mail Jon Ward and follow him on Twitter