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Senate OKs Obama nominees, extends tax breaks as term nears end

File- This Dec. 4, 2012, file photo shows Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. pausing during his news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Impeded no more by Republican blocking tactics, Democrats are on track to win confirmation of up to 88 of President Barack Obama’s top judicial nominations this year, a total that would be the highest for any president in two decades. Reid is hoping to confirm a dozen more before adjournment later this week, votes he is pushing knowing that the Republicans who control the Senate next year will be less accommodating. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
December 16, 2014 - 8:55 PM

WASHINGTON - The Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed the last batch of President Barack Obama's judicial appointees and sent the White House legislation extending tax breaks for working-class Americans and special interests alike as Congress ended a tumultuous two-year run.

An 11th-hour attempt Tuesday night to renew a program obliging the government to cover part of the cost of terrorism-caused losses was sidetracked by a retiring Republican senator, who said it was a giveaway to private industry.

But dozens of Obama's nominees to agency positions won approval on what shaped up as the final night of the Congress. Among them were Sarah Saldana to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The night effectively marked the end of an eight-year era of Democratic control of the Senate, with Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada as majority leader. When the new Congress convenes in January, Republicans will hold a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, able to set an agenda of their own making.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the incoming majority leader, announced that the first bill he would bring to the floor in 2015 will approve construction of the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Lawmakers finished with a final flurry of accomplishment that stood in contrast to a running series of battles over spending cuts, taxes, the debt limit and routine funding bills that precipitated crisis after crisis.

The House stubbornly voted more than 50 times in two years to repeal the signature health care law that Obama has vowed to defend — and at one point precipitated a 16-day partial government shutdown as a result.

There was no immediate comment from the White House on the final votes of the Congress, but Obama signed into law one major year-end measure, a $1.1 trillion spending bill to keep most of the federal government in operation through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year.

Confirmation of 12 judges came on top of 76 judicial appointees approved earlier in the year. The combined 88 was the most since a Democratic-led Senate approved 99 of President Bill Clinton's nominees in 1994, according to Russell Wheeler, who studies the judiciary at the Brookings Institution.

That easily surpassed the 43 approved last year and the 49 confirmed in 2012. The numbers jumped after Democrats muscled through a weakening of the Senate's rules on filibusters, the procedural delays that minority parties have long used to sink nominations and bills they dislike.

The tax measure would add nearly $42 billion to the budget deficit over the next decade, according to congressional estimates. The 54 breaks in the bill benefit corporations, small businesses, struggling homeowners and residents of states without an income tax. More narrow provisions include tax breaks for filmmakers, racehorse owners and rum producers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Another provision allows the creation of tax-free accounts to pay the costs of education, housing and health care for individuals with disabilities.

The terrorism insurance bill gave the retiring Republican Sen. Tom Coburn one final chance to live up to his nickname of "Dr. No." In his final remarks on the Senate floor after a decade in office, he said the program has so far been worth $40 million to the private insurance industry.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, a leading supporter of the program, urged action early in 2015 on the terrorism insurance bill, and said, "billions of dollars of projects and hundreds of thousands of jobs are at risk."

Several lawmakers said Democrats were able to confirm more nominees than expected after conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz forced a vote last weekend on Obama's executive actions deferring the deportation of millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

The 88 judges means the Senate has approved 303 federal appeals and district court judges through Obama's six years in office, according to Wheeler, more than the 298 confirmed during Clinton's first six years and 253 confirmed during that same period under President George W. Bush.

Such numbers will let Obama put his imprint on the federal judiciary, though judges don't always follow the political ideology of the president who picked them.


Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Andrew Taylor, Stephen Ohlemacher, Donna Cassata and Chuck Babington contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2014
The Associated Press

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