Senate ends chaotic session with a late flurry of votes

Senate concludes 2014 session with a final flurry of activity Tuesday

A turbulent lame-duck session of Congress came to a sudden end Tuesday as the Senate rushed to clear a lingering tax bill and some key presidential nominations in a late-night flurry of final votes.

Lawmakers signed off on a deal to extend $45 billion worth of tax breaks through this calendar year, ensuring that businesses and individuals can claim the deductions in their next IRS filings. The 76-16 vote also approved what had been a separate bill to create new tax-free accounts that can be used for the care of disabled family members.

The agreement sent lawmakers home earlier than many had expected just a few days ago, when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) forced members into a marathon weekend session as he made a final, unsuccessful effort to derail President Obama's new immigration policy during consideration of the $1.1-trillion spending deal.

Congress passed the bill Saturday and Obama signed the package into law without ceremony Tuesday night, the White House announced.

Democrats ultimately used that Saturday session to set up votes on a number of controversial presidential appointments, including a new surgeon general who was confirmed Monday. By the end of the day Tuesday, the Senate had confirmed 69 of Obama's nominees since Friday.

The Senate formally adjourned shortly before midnight. The House, which has already wrapped up its work, will follow suit this week.

Earlier in the day, during a closed-door Republican luncheon, Cruz apologized to his colleagues for the disruption he'd caused, even as he publicly refused to back off his stance.

"People were frustrated over the weekend," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the GOP leadership. "I certainly think he recognized that and was doing what he could to try and make it right."

The animosity of previous days largely faded as the Senate hurried to complete its business Tuesday. As aides worked on the details behind the scenes, Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), bitter adversaries for much of this year who are set to trade the titles of majority and minority leader in the next, chatted amiably at McConnell's desk.

Also Tuesday, the Senate voted to confirm Antony Blinken to the No. 2 position at the State Department and Sarah Saldana as head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. By night's end, nearly four dozen executive appointments and another dozen judges were confirmed without a formal vote.

But continued opposition from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked legislation to renew the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act beyond Dec. 31. The program, created after the Sept. 11 attacks, provides a federal safety net to pay for financial losses incurred in any new major terrorist attack.

The final vote of the 113th Congress was on confirmation of a District Court judge nominee, capping a productive 13 months of such confirmations after Democrats changed long-standing Senate rules to allow them to approve many nominations by a simple majority vote and avoid Republican filibusters.

For 13 senators, it was their final vote. Departing lawmakers, including some who were defeated more than a month ago, were accepting hugs and handshakes as others relished an earlier-than-expected start to their holiday breaks.

As he walked off the Senate floor for the final time, retiring Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan described the moment as "strange."

"It takes getting used to after 36 years," Levin, the longest-serving departing senator, said as he hurried from the chamber toward the Capitol's Rotunda.

In a surprising coda to a year in which both sides accused the other of grinding the chamber to a halt, it marked the earliest lawmakers had finished their business to end a Congress since 2008. The 114th Congress, with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, will convene Jan. 6.

"We're ready for next year," McConnell said as he exited the Capitol. 

Follow @mikememoli for more news out of Washington.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

8:59 p.m.: The story was updated to say that the Senate had formally adjourned, and that the House will follow suit later in the week.

8:39 p.m.: The story was updated to say that the Senate had finished its work, approving 69 nominees since Friday.

The story was originally published at 8:06 p.m.

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