Today's Power Play: Lame Duck Waddles Toward Spending Plan; Last Stand on START; Biden Ups Ante on Afghan Timeline

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Congress Running on Fumes

"This lame duck has been poisoned."

-- Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on "Face the Nation."

It's five days ‘till Christmas. Have you funded your government yet?

The Senate could vote as soon as today to continue appropriations at the current level through the beginning of March. It's the last "must-pass" provision that Congressional Democrats left for their post-election session, and the last big bargaining chip the party's leaders have.

For as soon as the government is funded, there is little to force compromise or even attention from distracted lawmakers between now and Jan. 3, when the clock officially runs out on the current Congress.

There are two other items left on the Democrats' to-do list: President Obama's missile treaty with Russia and a fund to compensate 9/11 responders and cleanup workers who say they've been sickened by toxic debris.

Democrats split a weekend session with Republicans. Dems won the opportunity for gay members of the armed forces to openly express their sexualities but lost on an effort to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors.

It seems increasingly likely that Democrats will split the next series with the GOP - losing on missiles but wining on the 9/11 fund. The 9/11 fund seems all but certain to pass after Democrats agreed to reduce the price tag by nearly to less than $7 billion from more than $9 billion and find ways to pay for it.

It seems like the Senate is coming to a wheezing stop. After dealing with a pile of contentious issues that had been looming for years, the upper chamber is exhausted. After setting tax policy for the next two years, repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and approving a big batch of the president's appointees, there isn't much starch left in the Senate.

The House has finished all of its work and is mostly just waiting for the Senate to come up with a continuing resolution to fund the government and establish the 9/11 toxic debris fund so it can sign off and go home. The Senate may be exhausted, but the House is distracted.

Power Play heard one of the 54 defeated House Democrats being interviewed on the radio about where the boxes and boxes of his files on legislative procedure would be stored, and his concern that future generations might be denied the chance to pore over his missives on farm subsidies or whatever it is he's been doing. This is not a guy who is interested in working down to the wire.

There are another 39 members of the House who won't be returning, meaning that 21 percent of the entire body has no reason to stay other than avoiding their futures as exiles from Capitol Hill. Add to that number all of the returning Republicans who are just waiting for reinforcements to arrive.

This may have been the busiest lame duck session in congressional history, and it follows one of the most ambitious regular sessions in a generation. That workload has taken its toll.

When Republicans shut down Majority Leader Harry Reid's plan to spend $1.1 trillion, it was pretty clear that the concept of an ambitious lame duck was kaput.

Once a government shutdown has been averted, Reid will be hard pressed to keep his colleagues from flapping on home.

Opposition Hardens on START

"I don't know whether it was because of a lack of direction from the commander-in-chief or poor negotiation, but one way or another we got snookered. We got snookered on missile defense. ... We got snookered on tactical nuclear weapons. We got snookered on verification."

-- Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) on the Senate floor Sunday.

Senate Democrats believed that they were only three votes short of the 67 they needed to ratify president Obama's missile treaty with Russia, but now wonder if more Republicans are wavering.

The Senate will debate the plan in a closed hearing today, at which Republicans are expected to hit Democrats on three main areas: the means of verifying Russia's participation, the omission of tactical "battlefield" nuclear weapons and implications for missile defense.

Democrats have succeeded in defeating Republican amendments that addressed these concerns. An amendment to the treaty means the president would have to renegotiate, hat in hand, with the Russians. That might be a worse loss of diplomatic dignity than a defeat, something Bill Clinton experienced in 1999 on his nuclear test ban treaty.

What really seems to be causing problems for the treaty is that Republicans don't like feeling rushed, especially after they got frog marched on allowing gays in the military to be open about their sexualities. Senators like John McCain, who seemed amenable on the treaty, were upset that Reid plowed ahead on gay service instead of entertaining an alternate plan for delayed implementation of the new gay-friendly regulations.

It doesn't help either that the Democratic talking points on the treaty have focused on how modest its aims are. It may have helped make Republicans look like they're overreacting, but while a big, important treaty might need urgent passage, a modest one doesn't need to be pushed through on Christmas week.

The White House is clearly concerned that the new, more Republican Congress will be so consumed with fiscal matters that the treaty, the cornerstone of the president's new accommodation with the Kremlin, will fall by the wayside.

Republicans had been praising the efforts by the White House to answer questions from concerned Republicans and signs pointed to passage. And if a status quo spending plan quickly takes shape today, Republicans might yet relent in their opposition to the missile plan.

But for now, it seems like the GOP will hold START until next year.

North Korea Rewards Inaction

"We felt it was not worth reacting one-by-one to military provocations."

-- A statement from the North Korean People's Army Supreme Command, quoted by the nation's official news agency.

North Korea's military didn't respond to their South Korean cousins lobbing a few tons of artillery shells into the Yellow Sea today.

But having won big off the battlefield, the Pyongyang regime had little to gain by another military confrontation. The U.S. pushed for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to force member nations China and Russia to get a bit tougher with Kim Jong-il & co., but Moscow and Bejing were unmoved. The session ended in collapse.

Meanwhile, diplomatic free agent New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is touting his trip to see the NorKs and an apparent promise to allow more inspectors access to the rogue regime's nuclear installation as part of larger negotiations

This is a double coup for Kim. Not only did the U.N. fail to act against him for bombarding South Korean territory and sinking a South Korean warship, but he has returned to the status he once enjoyed as the recipient of international delegations seeking his cooperation.

If you hold some Americans captive, you get Bill Clinton. Kill some South Koreans, you get Richardson.

So far, the return to more open belligerence has been working out for Kim.

Talking Points Alert: 2014 Deadline Gets Stronger

"We're starting it in July of 2011, and we're going to be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014."

-- Vice President Joe Biden "Meet the Press" discussing the administration's extended timetable for the American military effort in Afghanistan.

Vice President Joe Biden continues to stand as the public face of dissent within the Obama administration over the president's stay-the-course strategy in Afghanistan.

Biden famously objected to the current 30,000-troop surge before it was first announced a year ago and continues to be the administration's main spokesman for talking to liberal outlets about the strategy.

His message on NBC on Sunday was that he still expects a substantial drawdown of U.S. forces to begin in July, even though the president seems to have moved off that date. But Biden promised that the new 2014 deadline articulated in last week's White House policy review is carved in stone.

This is Biden playing one of the two traditional roles for the vice president, who is usually tasked with either attacking opponents in a way that the president can't and to placate the president's political base.

The challenger here will be whether Biden can be forceful enough about the new deadline, especially since it is so far in the future, to satisfy anxious liberals without sounding defeatist and endangering the central initiative of President Obama's foreign policy.

Yemen a Dirty Bomb Makers' Delight?

"Very little now stands between the bad guys and Yemen's nuclear material."

-- Wikileaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Yemen.

As Julian Assange prepares for Christamas at an English country estate, his leaking of diplomatic cables continues to cause headaches for the U.S.

In the latest load of documents disgrorged by Britain's Guardian newspaper, U.S. embassy officials fret openly about the lax security at nuclear sites around the globe, with particular attention to the terrorist haven of Yemen.

Yemen, a poor, chaotic Arab nation, has the remnants of an old nuclear research facility from its days as a communist client state. A worried American diplomat explained that the facility was unguarded and even without video surveillance last year.

Al Qaeda operates with impunity in the northern part of the country, and is said to be staging its current offensive on the West there.