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Just how lame will the lame-duck session be?

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Freshman congress
Members of the freshman class of Congress pose for a photo opportunity on Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2018.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

WASHINGTON — One underappreciated component to Barack Obama’s successful 2012 re-election was the congressional productivity during the during lame-duck session after Democrats lost control of the U.S. House.

Obama and Mitch McConnell cut their deal to extend the Bush tax cuts in return for an extension of the payroll tax cuts (hello, more stimulus!); Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (pleasing liberals and the LGBT community); and Obama got his New START Treaty with Russia (arguably his biggest foreign-policy win during his first term).

So eight years later — after Donald Trump lost the U.S. House in the midterms and eyes his re-election fight in 2020 — the question becomes: Can the president achieve some policy wins in the next month? Or will the lame duck truly be lame?

Our Capitol Hill correspondents and producers weighed in with their answers.

NBC’s Frank Thorp: “Farm bill, government funding, and nominations. Criminal justice reform is a stretch, although COULD be jammed in there.”

NBC’s Garrett Haake: “Criminal justice reform feels like the most ‘active’ major issue ... It’s divisive, which will turn off McConnell, but it feels like a wide-open battle at this point, and to me at least seems more likely to turn into something than any other possible big deal beyond keeping the lights on.”

NBC’s Kasie Hunt: “I agree with this. There are some other things they’re working on too that could get attached to this stuff — the rules changes on sexual harassment are one thing we’ve been following particularly closely.”

NBC’s Alex Moe: “Also, [Ways and Means] Chairman [Kevin] Brady dropped another tax bill last night ... obviously can’t imagine it passes the Senate, but the House seems adamant on getting it through in lame duck.”

NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell: “[Trump] will be unlikely to get his middle-class tax cuts, and he could get rebuked on Saudi Arabia.”

Politico adds that Republican members are worried they might squander policy wins during the lame duck. “[W]ith a Democratic House takeover imminent, [Sen. Ted] Cruz argues that Republicans should simply focus on getting as much done as possible. He’s not alone: Republicans are variously arguing that from the border wall to criminal justice reform to trade, the outcomes are about to get a whole lot worse for their party in January if they don't act now.”

Republicans won in Mississippi’s Senate runoff

The 2018 political cycle ended Tuesday night in pretty much the same place it began more than a year ago — with Democrats over-performing in special elections in the reddest areas of the country and, more often than not, coming up short.

In last night’s Senate runoff in Mississippi, appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., defeated Democrat Mike Espy by 8 points, 54 percent to 46 percent. That’s down from Trump’s 18-point advantage in the state in 2016 and former Sen. Thad Cochran’s 22-point win there in 2014.

Indeed, Espy’s 10-point over-performance from the 2016 presidential results is close to the average of Democrats’ showing in the eight other major special elections of the 2018 cycle — from GA-6 to the Roy Moore vs. Doug Jones Senate race in Alabama.

“Republicans were fortunate that most of [these special elections] took place in GOP-friendly territory or they would have lost more of them,” tweeted Inside Elections’ Nathan Gonzales.

And maybe that’s the story of 2018: Due to Trump’s unpopularity and Democrats’ enthusiasm advantage, Dems made substantial gains across the country. And they ended up winning the states and districts that were within reach (that Trump lost or won by fewer than 5 points), and they ended up falling short in places Trump won by more than 5 points.

The 9 major special elections of 2017-2018


  • KS-4 in 2016: Mike Pompeo 61%, Daniel Giroux 30% (R+31)
  • KS-4 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 60%, Clinton 33% (R+27)
  • KS-4 in 2017: Ron Estes 53%, James Thompson 46% (R+7)


  • GA-6 in 2016: Tom Price 62%, Rodney Stooksbury 38% (R+24)
  • GA-6 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 48%, Clinton 47% (R+1)
  • GA-6 in 2017 (initial round): Jon Ossoff 48%, Karen Handel 20%, Bob Gray 11%, Dan Moody 9%, Judson Hill 9%.
  • GA-6 in 2017 (runoff): Handel 52%, Ossoff 48% (R+4)


  • MT-AL in 2016: Ryan Zinke 56%, Denise Juneau 40% (R+16)
  • MT in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 36% (R+21)
  • MT-AL in 2017: Greg Gianforte 50%, Rob Quist 44% (R+6)

South Carolina

  • SC-5 in 2016: Mick Mulvaney 59%, Fran Person 39% (R+20)
  • SC-5 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 39% (R+18)
  • SC-5 in 2017: Ralph Norman 51%, Archie Parnell 48% (R+3)


  • AL-SEN in 2016: Shelby 64%, Crumpton 36% (R+28)
  • AL in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 62%, Clinton 34% (R+28)
  • AL-SEN in 2017: Doug Jones 50%, Roy Moore 48% (D+2)


  • PA-18 in 2016: Tim Murphy (R) unopposed
  • PA-18 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 58%, Clinton 38% (R+20)
  • PA-18 in 2018: Conor Lamb 49.9%, Rick Saccone 49.5% (D+0.4)


  • AZ-8 in 2016: Trent Franks 69%, Mark Salazar 31% (R+38)
  • AZ-8 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 36% (R+21)
  • AZ-8 in 2018: Debbie Lesko 53%, Hiral Tipirneni 47% (R+6)


  • OH-12 in 2016: Pat Tiberi 67%, Ed Albertson 30% (R+37)
  • OH-12 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 52%, Clinton 41% (R+11)
  • OH-12 in 2018: Troy Balderson 50%, Danny O'Connor 49% (R+1)


  • MS-SEN in 2014: Thad Cochran 60%, Travis Childers 38% (R+22)
  • MS in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 58%, Clinton 40% (R+18)
  • MS-SEN runoff in 2018: Cindy Hyde-Smith 54%, Mike Espy 46% (R+8)

Here’s the Senate math you need to memorize for 2020

With Hyde-Smith’s victory in Mississippi last night, the GOP will hold a 53-47 Senate majority next year (up from the 52-48 advantage they held to begin the 2018 cycle).

So here’s the Senate math you need to memorize for 2020: If Democrats win the White House, they will need a net of three pickups to control the chamber (since the vice president can break 50-50 ties in the Senate). But if they lose the White House, they will need to net four seats for control.

The early Senate battlegrounds for 2020: Alabama (D), Arizona (R), Colorado (R), Georgia (R), Iowa (R), Maine (R), Michigan (D) and North Carolina (R).

The uncalled House races (one)

CA-21 (NBC retracted its call of Republican David Valadao as the winner)

House Dems hold their closed-door leadership elections

NBC’s Alex Moe: “House Democrats will meet behind closed doors to hold their leadership elections for the 116th Congress … starting at 10:00 am ET. (Members-elect participate in these votes.)”

“To be elected to Democratic leadership in this caucus vote process, a member only needs a simple majority of the caucus to support him or her. This vote in caucus is by secret ballot — so we will never know officially WHO voted for whom.”

“So again this means Nancy Pelosi just needs a simple majority … to win — this is different from the House floor vote in January where she will need a majority of the whole House present AND voting.”

And: “Since she's running unopposed, Pelosi has modified the caucus ballot so members can simply vote ‘yes’ or 'no' on her nomination to lead the party.”

Manafort’s lawyer briefed Trump’s team AFTER plea deal?

“A lawyer for Paul Manafort, the president’s onetime campaign chairman, repeatedly briefed President Trump’s lawyers on his client’s discussions with federal investigators after Mr. Manafort agreed to cooperate with the special counsel, according to one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers and two other people familiar with the conversations,” the New York Times writes.

“The arrangement was highly unusual and inflamed tensions with the special counsel’s office when prosecutors discovered it after Mr. Manafort began cooperating two months ago, the people said. Some legal experts speculated that it was a bid by Mr. Manafort for a presidential pardon even as he worked with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, in hopes of a lighter sentence.”

The question we have: Was Manafort-Trump cooperation a shock to Mueller’s team? Or did they anticipate it?

Andrew Cuomo’s a 'no' for 2020

NBC’s Ben Kamisar: “Months after he declared that if reelected in November (he was), he would serve out his full term unless ‘God strikes me dead,’ Cuomo told WNYC that he still isn't interested in taking on President Trump in 2020.”

“‘I'm ruling it out. I ran for governor, I have a full plate, I have many projects, I’m gonna be here doing the job of governor,’ he said, pointing to his pushes on taxes and on transportation.”