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It's time to kill the lame duck session

The current lame duck session of Congress, which ends on Jan. 3 and includes senators and representatives defeated on Nov. 4, began with the same old partisanship that characterized the last few years in Washington, as the Senate rejected the Keystone XL pipeline construction bill by a single vote.

It probably didn't matter, because President Barack Obama had already vowed to veto the bill if it reached his desk. Even so, it probably will come up again in the new Congress when the Republicans take control of the Senate while continuing their hold on the House of Representatives. If so, Mr. Obama will still probably veto it.

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The condition seems to be both the present and the future of life on Capitol Hill in this era of divided government between the executive and legislative branches. Making it even worse is the lame duck congressional session, which only prolongs the agony of the defeated legislators, whose last votes may well be reversed or wiped out when the new Congress comes in.

Instead of starting on a clean slate then, the president must slog through several more weeks of his Democratic colleagues struggling to rescue a few pieces of legislation or to keep the Republicans at bay a little while longer.

Adding to the drama of the lame duck session is Mr. Obama's plan to stay the deportation of certain undocumented immigrants. His determination to do so by executive order has already drawn the ire of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader to-be Mitch McConnell, who used the session as a platform for their predictable outrage. They have called it "poisoning the well," suggesting that it has soured the hoped-for modicum of bipartisanship in the new Republican Congress. "The president's made it a lot tougher to get off on the kind of legislative footing that I had hoped to get established," Mr. McConnell said. "Just because the American people elected divided government doesn't mean they expect us to not do anything."

The post-election squabbling provided another good rationale for doing away with the lame duck session, which seldom has been more than a nuisance anyway.

President Harry Truman used it to good political purpose in his 1948 election campaign, when he labeled another uncooperative session "the Do-Nothing Congress." He called it back for post-convention meeting to make his point, and then pulled off his upset victory over the favored Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey.

The lame duck session resulted from the ratification in 1933 of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which changed the date of transition from the first Monday in December of the election year to Jan. 3 of the new year, creating the six-week gap after election, providing time for legislators to get to Washington in the days before air travel.

Humorist Will Rogers in 1932 wrote a letter to The New York Times saying of the lame duck session: "It's like where some fellows worked for you and the work wasn't satisfactory and you let them out, but after you fired 'em, you let 'em stay long enough so they could burn your house down."

That isn't quite the danger of the current lame duck session, but it doesn't make much sense, after the voters have thrown some of the rascals out, that they get a few more shots at the people's business. Not all the losers were rascals, certainly, but they probably didn't please those who dismissed them.

Also, it's not exactly a crime to be defeated for a seat in the House or the Senate. Many of those once shown the door by the voters have made comebacks — even a president like Democrat Grover Cleveland, who was elected in 1884, defeated in 1888 and returned to the Oval Office in 1892. Losers can always run again.

But calling them back for a little overtime does not seem to be in the spirit of the election process. A president has the option to call Congress back for a special session, but he should reserve the act for emergency reasons, not for political gain or mischief.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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