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KONRAD YAKABUSKI

Obama finding a way through the legislative 'gridlock' Add to ...

The sun had not been up for two hours before Barack Obama was calling it "a very good day."

As he signed into law a bill repealing the ban on gay soldiers revealing their sexual orientation, an "overwhelmed" President insisted he "couldn't be prouder" to have realized this "historic milestone."

And he was just getting started. There was more perfecting of the American union on Wednesday than some presidents accomplish in a year.

Mr. Obama's nuclear arms treaty with Russia was ratified by the Senate, consummating his most concrete foreign policy achievement yet. The upper chamber even overcame a weeks-long Republican standoff to unanimously pass a $4.3-billion (U.S.) health-care bill for 9/11 rescuers.

In a Congress beset by rabid partisanship and chronic one-upmanship, that is not just a very good day. It's an extraordinary one.

Indeed, it has been an extraordinary month for the relationship between the President and Republicans in Congress, who had been considered too distrustful of one another - and too uncomfortable with one another - to get anything done together.

Now, at least they're on speaking terms. Eight Republican senators voted to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gays from serving openly in the U.S. military. Thirteen GOP senators voted to ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

The new START was adopted with less bipartisan support than its predecessor arms control agreements. But for a President still seeking to prove his commander-in-chief credentials, it was "a powerful signal to the world" that Americans stand together on national security.

All but a handful of Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, voted for Mr. Obama's $858-billion package of tax cuts. The compromise deal postpones until 2012 an epochal battle over tax rates for the wealthy and administers more stimulus medicine to the still bedridden U.S. economy.

This is not how anyone predicted the aftermath of the Nov. 2 midterm elections would look. After the self-confessed "shellacking" he took at the hands of American voters, Mr. Obama was expected to confront an emboldened Republican bloc in Congress eager to exploit his weakness.

Instead, this lame-duck session has been anything but lame. The period between an election and the January swearing in of the new Congress is typically a legislative wasteland. This one has been an oasis.

"If there's any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it's that we are not doomed to endless gridlock," the President told a last-minute news conference on Wednesday, called by the White House to showcase a newly energized Obama 2.0. "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."

It was inevitable that a reporter, betraying the media's infinite appetite for a redemption story, would ask him: "Are you ready to call yourself the comeback kid?"

The real question, however, is not whether Mr. Obama is on the upswing. A new CNN poll showed Mr. Obama's approval rating for the lame-duck session soared to 56 per cent, from the mid-40s a few weeks ago.

The real question is: Can it last?

Republicans are in knots over the accomplice role they've played in Mr. Obama's turnaround. In the new Congress, Republicans will control the House of Representatives and hold five more seats in the Senate. They are girding for the opportunity to play hardball. Epic battles over federal spending loom large.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell insists the tax deal was a victory for the GOP, not Mr. Obama, because Republicans succeeded in defining the national debate on income redistribution.

Mr. McConnell's characterization of a tax deal that adds hundreds of billions of dollars to the annual deficit as "an essential first step in tackling the debt" may seem downright Orwellian. But in a Wednesday column on the website of the National Review, he insisted that by "keeping taxes where they are, we are officially cutting off the spigot."

Still, Republicans have a long history of starving the governmental beast of revenue by cutting taxes without executing the concomitant reductions in expenditures needed to balance the books. They risk being once more hoisted on their own petard.

Indeed, though Democrats fought amongst themselves over the tax compromise, it is the midterm victors who emerge most divided from this lame-duck session. Prospective presidential contenders Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney broke with Mr. McConnell on the tax deal, as did current and incoming Tea Party members of Congress.

The GOP caucus split into factions on the new START, with South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint saying it signalled "a continued pattern of appeasement" by the Obama administration.

Mr. Obama may have Republicans exactly where he wants them - caught up in their own contradictions. At the very least, he had earned the right to savour that prospect as he took off to Hawaii for the holidays.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

 

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