A progressive “to-do” list for lame-duck Congress

There’s still time to push the progressive agenda forward in Congress before the big Republican majority takes over in January 2011, and that’s what Senate Democrats should do. This is not a time for caving in, giving up or doing nothing. At the very least, during the lame-duck session of Congress, the outgoing Democratic leadership could force a showdown on issues that matter, clarify the Democratic message of empathy for disadvantaged people, and make Republicans say “No” again and again.

It won’t be easy. Several US Senate seats will change hands for the fall session, as their new occupants—voted in via special elections to fill vacant seats—will be sworn in immediately. One of those seats belongs to Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, a party-switch that adds a 42nd Republican to the minority. This change means that Democrats will need at least two Republicans and every Democratic senator to stop a filibuster.

The odds are stacked against the liberal agenda, but that’s not a good enough reason to stop trying. Here’s the to-do list that liberal/progressive advocates want Congress to tackle before the January changeover.

Pass the DREAM Act

This bill would give young immigrants who join the military or attend college a path to legalization. It’s currently a provision in the defense authorization bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who survived a close-call re-election, made a campaign pledge—on the Spanish-language Univision broadcasting network—that he would bring it up for a lame-duck vote. Do it, Harry.

Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

President Obama has said, repeatedly, that he favors repealing this law, which bars gays and lesbians from serving in the military. The provision is part of the defense authorization bill. Republican leaders have loudly protested that attaching DADT to the larger—and more popular—bill is a sneaky tactic.  Perhaps the Democrats could bring up DADT as a stand-alone bill and force a clean, up-or-down vote, calling the Republicans’ bluff.

“We have the votes, including Republican votes, to repeal DADT if the bill can just get on the floor,” says Fred Sanz, vice-president of the Human Rights Campaign, which has been a leading advocate for repeal. DADT has already passed the House of Representatives.

Extend unemployment benefits

In July, the Senate approved a fourth extension of unemployment insurance benefits, but that extension runs out at the end of November. Republicans tried hard to stop the extension, and they have promised to oppose another one. [Do their constituents know that they voted against something so clearly beneficial to so many suffering people?] Allowing jobless benefits to expire could be tragic for millions of people. And extending unemployment benefits is an idea favored by Americans who want to do the right thing. Democrats may find that they don’t have the votes to get this job done, but a legislative demonstration of support for unemployed people would be a principled stand that would underscore the difference between the Democratic and Republican agendas.

Save the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class

President Obama is on record as wanting to “decouple” tax cuts for the wealthy from tax cuts for the middle class [families with combined incomes of less than $250,000]. He even has offered to compromise on the upper income limit. But newly emboldened Republicans now say that compromise and “decoupling” are off the table. This is another issue that shows the enormous gap between Democratic and Republican philosophies. It’s an issue that, framed effectively, could help people understand and realize the worth of the progressive agenda. [It has been suggested, for example, that President Obama and the Democrats recast the “Bush” tax cuts as President Obama’s “tax fairness” agenda.] But however it’s labeled, standing up for middle-class tax cuts—and insisting that the wealthy pay their fair share—even  in the face of inevitable defeat—would be a valuable “messaging” opportunity.

If, beginning in January, we’re going to have to suffer through a Congress whose Republicans believe they have a “mandate” to repeal every iota of progress that has been achieved in the past two years, can we at least count on Democrats to take a stand on principle and let America know what the progressive agenda is really about?