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Bipartisanship in the Lame Duck? Well, a Little

Could it actually be that President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans can work together to get stuff done?

My bet is: temporarily, and on a limited basis, because they have to. But soon enough, we’ll be back to partisan war as usual.

The good news is that, having been clobbered in the last election, Obama finally realizes he can’t ignore the Republicans as he’s done more or less systematically for the past two years.

The bad news is that Republicans, having won the House and having strong prospects for capturing the Senate in 2012, will try to deny Obama any significant accomplishments over the next two years in hopes of defeating him and controlling the whole government in 2013.

Obama had it right when he said on Tuesday, after meeting with leaders of both parties, that “the American people did not vote for gridlock. They didn’t vote for unyielding partisanship. They’re demanding cooperation and they’re demanding progress.”

That’s an old Obama theme, famously dating back to the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that launched his national political career. But does he know how to walk his talk?

On two issues, at least, Republicans and Democrats absolutely have to come to terms this month: the Bush-era tax cuts and funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year.

It’s nothing less than legislative malfeasance that Congress did not perform these basic functions before the election.

Having failed to enact a budget resolution this year for just the fifth time since 1975, Congress has not passed a single one of the 12 appropriations bills to fund (and set priorities for) federal departments.

It’s likely that, during the lame-duck session, Congress will punt again, merely passing a continuing resolution to keep the government operating into next year.

Meantime, the tax cuts are set to expire Jan. 1 unless a new law is passed, raising everyone’s taxes with the economy, at best, staggering out of recession.

Obama and most Democrats want to keep the cuts just for families earning less than $250,000. Republicans want to make all of them permanent.

There’s almost certain to be a compromise of some sort. But it could be merely a split-the-difference pact, or a creative one.

The best one I’ve seen, recommended by Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), is to extend all the cuts for two years — and then adopt sweeping tax reform to eliminate loopholes and lower corporate and individual rates, making the tax code simpler, fairer and more economically efficient.

As the co-chairmen of Obama’s debt commission reported last month, the $1.1 trillion a year in “tax earmarks” written into the revenue code benefit the top 1 percent of taxpayers at a rate double that of any other income group.

Democrats had hoped to use the waning days of their dominance of the government to push through non-economic items on their agenda, notably the DREAM Act to benefit children of illegal immigrants, permission for openly gay service members in the military and the new START agreement with Russia.

They succeeded in passing a food safety bill through the Senate (though it may have to come back for a technical fix), but Senate Republicans served notice Wednesday that they would block consideration of anything else until the funding and tax issues are resolved.

That ought to focus Democratic leaders’ attention on the appropriate priorities, but what then? Is there hope for DREAM, unemployment compensation extension, START and an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell”?

There’s reason to hope for some of it — if time does not run out. Even though it’s cruel and a waste of human potential, DREAM may be doomed because Republicans hate the idea of giving “amnesty” to any illegal immigrants, even if they were brought to the United States as children.

There may be a chance for an alternative immigration bill that would give legal status to about 1 million agricultural workers, but prospects for that aren’t bright.

There’s every reason to allow openly gay service members, now that a Pentagon study has found that 70 percent of military personnel say it would have no effect on unit cohesion. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asserted that allowing orderly integration of gays was “a matter of urgency,” preferable to a judicial order to implement it precipitously.

And the prospects for START have improved with the administration’s move to yield to skeptics’ concerns over U.S. missile defenses and the reliability of the nuclear stockpile.

Assuming Republicans and Democrats can come to terms on some issues during the lame duck, what then on the cooperation front?

It’s clear what the public wants. A new Marist College/McClatchy poll shows that 72 percent of voters say that “Republicans should compromise with Democrats and President Obama to get things done.”

That includes 94 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents, 49 percent of Republicans and even 45 percent of tea party supporters.

But when asked what they expect to happen, 64 percent of all voters think Republicans will “stand firm on their positions even if it means things don’t get done,” including 69 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents, 55 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of tea party supporters.

My guess, sadly, is that this prediction is correct — and that the 2012 election will be mainly about who’s to blame for the fact that the country’s urgent problems haven’t been solved.

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