- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - 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 millions and special interests alike late Tuesday as Congress ended a tumultuous two-year run.

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 the final night of the Congress. Among them were Sarah Saldana 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, with Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada as majority leader. When the new Congress convenes in January, Republicans will hold a majority in both houses, able to set an agenda of their own making.

Looking forward to that day, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 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.

The final measure to clear the Senate was less momentous than that. It honored conservation on the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

The day’s events were bittersweet for some.

“I can’t believe I’m leaving here for the last time,” said Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, first elected to the House in 1974, and to the Senate in 1984.

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 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 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 a year ago and reduced the Republicans’ ability to delay votes.

“Republicans have just slow-walked judicial nominations,” said Harkin. “What we’re doing is what we should have done the last couple of years.”

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 Coburn - a physician as well as a politician - 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. “The American taxpayer takes all the risk except for 35 percent, and the insurance industry makes the money,” he said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a leading supporter of the program, laid the blame for the bill’s demise at the feet of House Republicans. He urged action early in 2015, 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 Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, forced a vote last weekend on Obama’s executive actions deferring the deportation of millions of immigrants.

Two senators said that at a closed-door lunch Tuesday for GOP senators Cruz offered an apology if he 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.

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.

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 and are conduits for cases on the way to the Supreme Court. When he took office, 10 of the 13 circuits had more judges appointed by Republican than Democratic presidents. Now, there are Democratic-appointed majorities on nine of them.


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

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