WASHINGTON – A cross Congress ended its business for the year Friday as the Senate approved a new boss for the troubled Internal Revenue Service but remained slowed and bitterly riven over majority Democrats’ weakening of Republicans’ power to filibuster.
Before leaving town, senators voted 59-36 to approve President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Koskinen, a retired corporate and government turnaround expert, to become IRS commissioner. The tax collection agency is still reeling from this spring’s revelations that its agents targeted tea party and other conservative groups for especially rigorous reviews when they sought tax-exempt status.
The Senate also moved Janet Yellen to the brink of becoming the first woman to head the Federal Reserve, voting 59-34 to end debate on her nomination. The chamber plans to confirm her to the powerful post when it returns from its holiday break Jan. 6.
Next year’s congressional elections make major legislation unlikely. But for now, the two parties closed the book on a petulant 2013 by engaging in tit-for-tat blockades of each other that typified much of the year.
Senate Republicans derailed Democratic efforts to quickly extend expiring unemployment benefits and tax breaks for commuters who use mass transit. And the GOP prevented Democrats from formally keeping scores of judicial, ambassadorial and agency nominations before the Senate.
Senate rules require that unapproved nominations be returned to the White House at the end of a congressional session, a requirement lawmakers sometimes waive.
“The normal way the Senate has operated for a couple of hundred years has been destroyed this year,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., referring to the Democratic-imposed changes in filibusters as he blocked the nominations request. “And to ask that normalcy come about now is just beyond the pale.”
“I understand that we’re at a point of great emotions and feelings, stress in the Senate” over the filibuster changes, said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois. “Unfortunately, it appears we’re going to stay in that state for at least a short period.”
Durbin was running the Senate Friday because Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was hospitalized overnight after complaining about not feeling well. Reid, 74, who had a mild stroke in 2005, was expected to leave the hospital as soon as Friday.
Earlier this week, Congress approved legislation setting spending limits for the next two years, all but ensuring there will be no government shutdowns during that period. But that bipartisan achievement was overshadowed in a year that featured repeated clashes between the parties.
Last month, Democrats rammed through a change allowing filibusters — procedural delays — to be ended by a simple majority vote of senators for nearly all nominations, instead of 60 votes.
That change intensified partisan passions in a chamber where Democrats said Republicans were using filibusters excessively, while Republicans said they were merely doing what Democrats had done in the past.
Even before that, 2013 featured partisan battles that resulted in a 16-day partial government shutdown in October and the defeat of gun control legislation in the Senate.
The Senate approved a wide-ranging overhaul of immigration laws while the Republican-led House refused to take up such a sweeping bill. The two parties also bickered endlessly over Obama’s health care law.
The House ended its business for the year last week.
Koskinen, 74, won a five-year term as IRS commissioner, which would last beyond Obama’s stay in office.
His public and private sector experience include helping overhaul mortgage buyer Freddie Mac after its near-collapse in the financial crisis at the end of President George W. Bush’s administration. He also oversaw preparations for potential computer problems associated with the Year 2000 under President Bill Clinton.
At his confirmation hearing, Koskinen said he will work to restore public trust in the agency.
Koskinen’s nomination had bipartisan support. But some Republicans wanted his confirmation delayed until the Justice Department and congressional committees finished investigations into the IRS targeting of conservative groups.
Democrats said the position was too important to go unfilled, especially as the IRS prepares for a major role implementing Obama’s health care law. It will impose fines on people who don’t buy coverage and distribute tax subsidies to help low-income people buy policies.
Yellen, 67, will replace Ben Bernanke as Fed chair after he leaves office Jan. 31. She will be the first Democrat to lead the central bank since Paul Volcker left in 1987.
Yellen is currently the Fed’s vice chair of the Fed.
She has been a supporter of Fed policies of keeping interest rates low and buying bonds to pump money into the economy.
After the Fed decided last week to gradually reduce the $85 billion in monthly bond purchases amid signs that the economy is improving, Bernanke said Yellen backed the move.
The Senate also voted Friday to confirm Alejandro Mayorkas to be deputy secretary of Homeland Security and Brian J. Davis to be a U.S. District Court judge in Florida.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.