The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday as the U.S. Senate extended dozens of expired tax breaks but failed to renew a federally backed terrorism insurance program supported by big businesses and major sports leagues.
Democrats controlling the Senate also secured agreements from Republicans to confirm at least six dozen of President Obama’s nominees to serve as federal judges, agency bosses and on myriad government boards, a last-minute coup for the White House since most of the picks faced tougher odds next year once Republicans take full control of Capitol Hill.
Word of a final agreement allowing senators to vote a final time and leave Washington for the holidays came shortly before 10 p.m., prompting senators to rush back into the U.S. Capitol for a final vote.
“Thank God it’s over!” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) said as he exited the Senate chamber afterward.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the second-ranking Republican, complained that Democrats had rushed too many nominees through in the closing days. “This is lamer than most lame-ducks,” he said.
But outgoing Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) disagreed: “We did okay this time. But, we’ve had better.” As for next year, Reid said he hopes “that we can have a little civility in the Senate.”
Senators waited most of the day on plans to wrap up unfinished business until party leaders quickly called a vote late Tuesday on a plan to extend dozens of tax breaks for individuals and businesses. The short-term extension fell short of a more ambitious agreement sought by members of both parties that collapsed amid threats of a White House veto.
Under the deal, millions of businesses and individual taxpayers will be able to claim long-standing deductions and credits worth $45 billion on their 2014 tax returns. But the perks expire again on Dec. 31, meaning lawmakers will be forced to fight all over again on the issue next year.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, voted against the package Tuesday night and lamented that the extension “doesn’t have the shelf life of a carton of eggs.”
Meanwhile, Senate leaders failed to convince retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to lift his block on legislation reauthorizing a government-backed terrorism insurance program. His opposition upended plans to reauthorize the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act after the House did so last week with more than 400 votes.
Coburn, long ago dubbed “Dr. No” for his ruthless legislative style, opposed the bill because it included language establishing a new national clearinghouse for insurers that he said states wouldn’t be able to opt out of, aides said. He blamed Democratic leaders for the protracted congressional session.
“It’s not anything unusual under Harry Reid’s leadership,” he said, adding as he walked away: “Or lack thereof.”
TRIA was first enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a way for the federal government to backstop insurance companies covering business from the risk of major attacks. Reauthorization of the legislation was backed by the nation’s insurance, construction and hospitality industries and major sports leagues, including the National Football League.
NFL officials denied rumors this week that it would be forced to cancel the Super Bowl in Arizona if the insurance program wasn’t reauthorized, saying that the league’s championship game will be played as scheduled.
As the session drew to a close, senators confirmed dozens of people to fill vacant slots across the federal government. The list included Antony Blinken to be a deputy secretary of state, Sarah Saldaña to become the next head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Nicholas J. Rasmussen to lead the National Counterterrorism Center, four career members of the Foreign Service to serve as U.S. ambassadors to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Macedonia and Montenegro and a dozen more people to serve as fedreal district court judges.
The final wave of judicial confirmations further tilts the nation’s federal courts in favor of Democratic appointees and will be seen by Democrats as validation of Reid’s decision last year to change Senate rules of procedure so that federal judicial nominees and executive-office appointments can advance to confirmation votes by a simple majority of senators, rather than the 60-vote supermajority that has been the standard for nearly four decades.
Republicans have not yet decided whether they will restore the chamber’s old rules next year.
The Senate’s final day also included an apology from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to his GOP colleagues. The Texas senator used the weekly Senate GOP luncheon to apologize for scuttling travel and weekend plans, but aides said that he didn’t apologize for his decision that kept the Senate in session much of Saturday in order to approve a $1.1 trillion spending bill.
Several Republicans had complained that an objection by Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) late Friday made it easier for Democrats to more quickly confirm the final batch of Obama nominees because the objection forced the Senate to stay open on Saturday, giving Reid nearly 10 hours of floor time to begin processing the picks.
The spending bill passed late Saturday with bipartisan support; Obama signed the legislation late Tuesday, the White House said.
After the luncheon on Tuesday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) engaged in a long conversation with Cruz, but would not say whether they talked about the weekend session.
“I’d rather just look forward,” he said as he announced plans to hold a vote early next year on legislation authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The bill is backed by moderate Senate Democrats and will spark an early showdown with the Obama administration over environmental policy.
Leaving the Senate chamber late Tuesday, Cruz said he was “Glad to be headed home and looking forward to a new Republican majority come January.”
Others were more whimsical.
Asked about the conclusion of the unproductive congressional session as he boarded an elevator, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) paraphrased the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “That which cannot be spoken must be passed over in silence.”