WASHINGTON - This is the story of a "lame duck" Congress that wasn't.
Shaken by a historic election in which angry voters canceled Democratic control of the House, lawmakers of both parties and President Barack Obama tried something new: They consulted each other. They cooperated. And finally, they compromised.
From tax cuts to a nuclear arms treaty and the repeal of the ban on openly serving gay soldiers, Congress and the Obama White House closed up their respective shops and headed out for the holidays with an uncommonly full bag of accomplishments.
Bipartisanship was one of them.
"That progress is . . . a reflection of the message the voters sent in November, a message that said it's time to find common ground on challenges facing our country," Obama told reporters before joining his family in Hawaii. "It's a message that I will take to heart in the new year, and I hope my Democratic and Republican friends will do the same."
That's less likely come January, when Republicans take control of the House, gain seats in the Senate and are guided in part by a shrewd GOP leader who has declared that his top priority is denying the president a second term in 2012.
Technically, he negotiated with Vice President Joe Biden, McConnell's Senate colleague for years, on a huge package of tax cuts, plus extended benefits for millions of unemployed workers.
Both sides hoped the compromise would win points for pragmatism with centrist and independent voters who will be pivotal in the 2012 elections.
In truth, giving struggling voters an $858-billion Christmas gift was a political no-brainer. But the compromise produced a deal and a visual that would have been hard to imagine only a few weeks earlier.
There was the stern-faced McConnell at Obama's elbow as the president signed the tax-cut deal into law. Absent were the leaders of Obama's own party - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - as well as the gleeful exhortations of bill-signings past.
"I wasn't going to go to my caucus and tell them that I was part of a deal that we were giving tax cuts to people making more than $1 million a year," Reid said in an interview late Wednesday, adding that he had excused himself from those negotiations.