Senate OKs Obama nominees, extends tax breaks in adjournment drive; GOP takes over in January

Economic Indicators Associated Press

The Democratic-controlled Senate worked to confirm a final batch of President Barack Obama's judicial appointees and sent the White House legislation extending tax breaks for working-class millions and special interests alike late Tuesday as lawmakers neared the end of a two-year Congress marked more by gridlock than accomplishment.

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An 11th-hour attempt to renew a program obliging the government to cover part of the cost of terrorism-caused losses was sidetracked by retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., 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 Soldana to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Nicholas Rasmussen as director of the National Counterterrorism Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The night effectively marked the end of an eight-year era of Democratic control of the Senate. When the new Congress convenes in January, Republicans will be in control of both houses, able to set an agenda of their own making.

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

It was unclear how many of Obama's remaining 12 judicial nominees would clear the Senate before a final adjournment, but regardless, it was certain to add to the highest annual figure in 20 years.

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

The Senate has approved 76 federal court of appeals and district court judges so far this year. Confirmation of 12 more would bring this year's total to 88 — the most since a Democratic-led Senate approved 99 of President Bill Clinton's appeals and district court nominees in 1994, according to Russell Wheeler, who studies the judiciary at the Brookings Institution.

Whatever this year's figure, it will easily surpass the 43 approved last year and the 49 confirmed in 2012. Majority Democrats enabled that in November 2013, when they 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.

"Republicans have just slow-walked judicial nominations," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "What we're doing is what we should have done the last couple of years."

The tax measure benefits banks, retailers, commuters, teachers and others who will be allowed to extend temporary breaks for another year. Obama's signature is expected on the measure, which cleared the House earlier this month.

It would add nearly $42 billion to the budget deficit over the next decade, according to congressional estimates.

The 54 tax breaks benefit big corporations and small businesses, as well as struggling homeowners and people who live in states without a state income tax. More narrow provisions include tax breaks for filmmakers, racehorse owners and rum producers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Several lawmakers said Democrats got a chance to consider more nominees than expected after conservatives led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, forced a vote last weekend on Obama's executive actions deferring the deportation of millions of immigrants. They said that gave Reid more time to hold votes on nominations.

Two senators said that at a closed-door lunch Tuesday for GOP senators Cruz offered an apology if his effort had forced any lawmakers to change their Christmas break plans. He did not specifically express regrets for opening the door to Senate approval of more nominees, said the lawmakers, who agreed to describe Cruz's remarks only on condition of anonymity.

Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said the lawmaker apologized to colleagues for inconveniencing their personal schedules. She said his goal was to force a vote on Obama's "illegal" immigration actions.

The 88 judges would mean the Senate would have confirmed 303 federal appeals and district court judges through Obama's six years in office, according to Wheeler. That would be more than the 298 confirmed during Clinton's first six years and the 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.

Currently, there are 50 federal appeals and district court vacancies out of 856 judgeships, according to data from the U.S. court system. That's the lowest number of vacancies since December 2008, the month before Obama took office. Vacancies during his presidency peaked at 108 in December 2010.

Another measure of Obama's impact is on federal appeals courts, which have enormous influence on their regions of the country and can be conduits for cases to reach the Supreme Court. When he took office, 10 of the 13 appeals courts had more judges appointed by Republican than Democratic presidents. Now the balance has switched, with Democratic-appointed majorities on nine of the courts.

Most significantly, that includes the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia circuit, considered the nation's second-most powerful court because its jurisdiction includes actions by the White House and federal agencies.

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Associated Press writers David Espo and Erica Werner contributed to this report.