It's no coincidence the tax-cut deal President Obama and Republicans reached extends the Bush-era tax breaks for two years, or just in time for the next national election.
In fact, on everything from spending to tax cuts to immigration, the issues Congress tackled in the nearly two months since the election - and in some instances, the matters that got blocked - seemed as geared toward preparing for 2012's elections as wrapping up 2010's business.
Lawmakers cleared a $858 billion tax deal, sent a bill to Mr. Obama to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gay troops, and ratified a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia. Meanwhile, a Republican-led filibuster blocked a plan to grant a path to citizenship to illegal-immigrant children and young adults, and Senate Republicans also stopped a $1.1 trillion, pork-laden omnibus spending bill.
"All of these issues will be important as legislators seek re-election in two years," said Darrel M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institute. "The most controversial will be Bush's tax cuts, because the tax issue always is incendiary during election years."
Indeed, lawmakers said it wasn't surprising the tax-cut extensions were timed to expire in two years, or just as another national campaign would be under way - this time with the White House also on the line.
Mr. Obama's advisers this weekend signaled that he is determined to impose higher income-tax rates for upper-income taxpayers after this extension expires.
Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said Sunday that Mr. Obama intends to end those reduced rates and drew a line in the sand against making them permanent, calling it one of the "things the president won't compromise."
"That is something he is willing to fight for," Ms. Jarrett said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "He is going to fight very hard when those two-year extensions expire. ... We'll see that in the next year and the year after that."
On the Republican side, the discussion is just the opposite. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, one of those considered a contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, argued that the two-year extension does not provide the certainty that individuals and businesses need.
"Why are we doing two years?" Mr. Pence said. "Well, there is an election in two years. I get that. There are people [who] for whatever reasons want to re-debate this in two years. I get that. I just don't get how it actually gets people back to work."
The vote on the tax-cuts package is already heating up the Republican primary field.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called the deal "disappointing," while Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, in what has been seen as a response to Mr. Romney, said it was "easy" and "perhaps even politically expedient to stand on the sidelines and criticize this proposal."
"Let me make one thing very clear, advocating against this tax proposal is to advocate for a tax increase," Mr. Thune said on the Senate floor.
Meanwhile, some Democrats showed they had a bigger bark then bite. Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, who is up for re-election in 2012, argued against the tax package on the floor, but ultimately voted for it after Ohioans sent him letters.
Some of the action in recent weeks was about clearing the decks of thorny issues, such as the military's policy on gay troops or the arms-reduction treaty - both of which were poised to be headaches for Congress next year, when control of the two chambers will be split.
And in a final cleanup of 2010 action, Senate Republicans filibustered the Dream Act, which would grant legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal-immigrant children and young adults who pursue an education or military service here in the U.S. That likely takes the issue of legalizing illegal immigrants off the table for the next two years, though it keeps immigration as a campaign issue in the next election.
But possibly more important for 2012 was a test of the continued influence of the "tea party" movement and its desire to limit government spending. That came to a head over Democratic leaders' effort to pass a yearlong, $1.1 trillion spending bill with more than $8 billion in earmarks and including funding for many programs the administration says are wasteful.
Club for Growth President Chris Chocola delivered a clear ultimatum to the Republicans on the measure.
"Any congressional Republican who supports the Democratic leadership's porked-up monstrosity would forfeit any claim to fiscal responsibility and economic conservatism," said Mr. Chocola, a former Republican congressman from Indiana. "Every Republican 'aye' vote will likely face a serious primary challenge from the right in their next re-election campaign, and should."
Other conservative activists, though, took a wait-and-see approach.
Ryan Ellis, tax-policy director at Americans for Tax Reform, said that lawmakers who support the spending proposal floated by Democrats are "totally not getting the message of the last election," but added that "it's way too early to translate that into anything 2012."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, thought he had enough Republican support to pass the bill, only to see all of it flee, forcing him to pull the bill and instead pass a short-term stopgap measure without earmarks.
Some say the influence of the coming 2012 election couldnt have been starker in the case of Sen. Joe Manchin III, the newly elected West Virginia Democrat who replaced the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
Mr. Manchin was missing in action when Democrats called a vote on two issues - the Dream Act and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" - that are vital to their activist base, but unpopular in conservative states.
The West Virginian later explained that he was at a Christmas party with his family, but Republicans suggested his next campaign slogan should be: "No voting, no labels - and no skipping Christmas parties, no matter what."
Isaac Wood of the University of Virginias Center for Politics said Mr. Manchin "certainly was not seeking a nomination for the next edition of 'Profiles in Courage.' "
"The short-term political hit could be worth it, he hopes, if at re-election time he does not have a glaring 'yes' or 'no' vote that will infuriate either Democrats or Republicans," he said. "Still, he will have other tough votes to face in the next two years, and he can't dodge them all. Too bad for him Christmas parties are not thrown year-round."
c Joseph Weber contributed to this report.
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