WASHINGTON — In the middle of a House debate, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky handed the woman in charge of the rules a paper bag. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., peered inside, saw the bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon and laughed.
Indeed, a shot of something strong might help make sense of a prolific Congress that seemed to break the rules of political physics. Democrats were punished by voters for a long list of accomplishments, then rallied with a post-election session that was anything but lame.
Among the lessons of 2010: Being the opposite of a "do-nothing Congress" can produce just as much loathing and election losses for the party in control of government. And bipartisanship in President Barack Obama's Washington is possible, if fleeting.
"Congress and the administration simply failed to listen to the American people," incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement as lawmakers left town. "Beginning on Jan. 5, the American people are going to watch their Congress do something differently."
"I'm not naive," Obama told reporters this week. "I know there will be tough fights in the months ahead."
Among the fiercest will be over the fate of Obama's signature, but deeply unpopular, health care overhaul that passed in March and proved a major factor in the Democrats' midterm rout. Republicans have vowed to try denying funds for parts of the nearly $1 trillion overhaul. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she decided to stay in the House as minority leader in part to stand in the way of any such rollback.
Long before the 112th Congress opens in January, Washington's fiscal experts began girding for battle over reining in federal spending and the deficit. That's the stated goal of all parties, but how to do it gets into complex policy issues and deeply rooted philosophical differences over the government's proper size and role.
Election politics in what essentially is a two-year campaign season will steer congressional business from the get-go.
With those battles to come, Democrats in their final days of power adjourned the 111th Congress on Wednesday night atop what historians say is the biggest collection of sweeping new laws in nearly half a century.
It may have felt like gridlock for the fierce posturing and name-calling. But not since the civil rights movement and the difficult birth of taxpayer-supported health care for the elderly and poor have government leaders made so many big changes — love them or hate them — so quickly.
Under Obama, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Congress reshaped a recessive economy, health care policy and Wall Street regulation. Both the costs and the government's reach were mind-boggling, alienating voters reeling under a near 10 percent unemployment rate and raising their distrust of Congress.
That was before the Nov. 2 elections that gave Republicans control of the House next year with 63 more seats, plus six more seats in the Senate.
Post-election, the workflow in Washington changed significantly. Shaken by an angry electorate, lawmakers of both parties and President Barack Obama tried something new: They consulted each other. They cooperated. And finally, they compromised.
From tax cuts to a nuclear arms treaty and the repeal of the ban on openly serving gay soldiers, Congress and the Obama White House closed up their respective shops and headed out for the holidays with an uncommonly full bag of accomplishments in a head-spinning 3 1/2 weeks.
Getting it all done required precise management of Congress' rules. After watching 81-year-old Slaughter on her feet pulling the strings for several hours one day last week, Yarmuth made his way over to her bearing some holiday cheer.
"I knew Chairwoman Slaughter had a long day," Yarmuth, D-Ky., said. "It was my responsibility to keep her in good spirits."
The bipartisanship, however, was more evident in the Senate.
At Obama's direction, Vice President Joe Biden negotiated a deal with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on extending tax cuts for all Americans — a Republican priority — along with significant federal help for the unemployed.
Giving struggling voters an $858 billion Christmas gift was a political no-brainer. But the compromise produced a deal and a visual that would have been hard to imagine only a few weeks earlier.
A stern-faced McConnell was at Obama's elbow as the president signed the tax cut deal into law. Absent were the leaders of Obama's own party — Pelosi and Reid — as well as the gleeful exhortations of bill signings-past.
"I wasn't going to go to my caucus and tell them that I was part of a deal that we were giving tax cuts to people making more than $1 million a year," Reid said this week, adding that he had excused himself from the negotiations.
On Dec. 18, the Senate joined the House in voting to repeal the military's "don't ask-don't tell" policy against openly gay personnel. The repeal pleased liberals who had been left on the sidelines with the tax cut deal, and it won support among rank-and-file Republicans.
And finally, the Senate on Wednesday ratified the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, 71-26. This time, McConnell and his second-in-command, Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, were left out of the deal-making as Obama, Reid and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., negotiated with like-minded Republicans.
There were also some failures in the Democrats' last days of congressional control.
Obama and Reid both chafed at the Republicans' defeat of the DREAM Act, legislation that would have provided a path to citizenship for millions of young illegal immigrants. And McConnell persuaded enough Republicans to block a $1.3 trillion spending bill filled with home-state pet projects for lawmakers. In its place, Congress approved just enough money to keep the government running until March, when Republicans say they'll start slashing spending.
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