The Senate brought the unceremonious first session of the 113th Congress to a close Friday, with the two sides battling over procedural rules for confirming President Obama’s nominees.
In a series of largely party-line votes, the Senate approved the confirmations of a deputy to the Department of Homeland Security, a lower-level federal judge and a commissioner to the Internal Revenue Service, while setting up a final vote early next month for the confirmation of Janet Yellen to become chairman of the Federal Reserve.
“Joy to the world,” Sen. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.) exclaimed as he exited the chamber after the last votes, summing up the frustration of many lawmakers in this year of legislative gridlock.
The day began on a somber note as the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced he had been hospitalized overnight for unspecified reasons, remaining there for observation. “Everything is normal,” Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman, said in a statement.
With fewer than 60 laws passed in 2013 – and most of those were just extensions of existing law or minor declarations – the year goes down as the least productive of any in modern recorded congressional history.
Hopes for bipartisan goodwill flowing from the budget deal that passed Congress in the last week evaporated in the last 72 hours of fighting about the nomination process. “If this is ‘Kumbaya’, I’d hate to see truly dysfunctional,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters.
On a 54-to-41 roll call, the Senate voted along party lines to confirm Alejandro Mayorkas as the No. 2 official at Homeland Security, after a partisan debate that raged for months. Mayorkas’s nomination raised concern among Republicans after they learned that he was the subject of an ongoing inquiry by the DHS inspector general over allegations that he mismanaged the program and showed favoritism. Mayorkas emphatically rejected the accusations.
Democrats pointed out that the DHS inspector general, Charles Edwards, was himself under investigation on unrelated charges of favoritism and mismanagement. Edwards resigned this week.
On a 59-to-36 vote, the Senate then made John A. Koskinen the first confirmed commissioner of the IRS in a year, following allegations that the agency targeted conservative political advocacy groups for intensive oversight during President Obama’s first term.
The Senate also confirmed Brian Davis, 68 to 26, as a federal district court judge in Florida. Davis was nominated in 2012, but his consideration was delayed over concerns about comments he made in the 1990s on the resignation of U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. Those concerns were dealt with, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was one of 14 Republicans to support Davis.
The final vote, 59 to 34, was to cut off debate on the Yellen nomination, ending any chance of a filibuster, with five Republicans voting with the Democrats. Her final confirmation vote will come Jan. 6, when the second session of the 113th Congress convenes.
Republicans have been protesting Reid’s move to change the confirmation rules, reducing the threshold to choke off a filibuster and move to a final simple majority vote. The Democrats have set the new bar at a simple majority rather than the 60 or more votes previously needed.
The two sides had been threatening to stay in session overnight Thursday into Friday morning as they debated these last four nominees, but Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reached a deal to just have all the votes Friday morning.
Friday night, Reid’s spokesman sent word the majority leader had been diagnosed with exhaustion and released from the hospital to rest— and “wishes everyone a happy holiday.”