Gridlock in the Senate, progress in the House

Last updated 05:55 13/12/2013

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A budget agreement between key Republicans and Democrats. Even President Barack Obama was on board. All without anyone threatening to repeal this or shut down that.

Gridlock, however briefly, took an early holiday in the bitterly polarised, Republican-run House.

But across the Capitol, the high-minded Senate remained in the grip of some of the worst partisan warfare in its history after majority Democrats curbed the Republicans' power. A round-the-clock talkathon is the result, putting no one in the mood for cooperation. Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to shorten the Senate's cherished Christmas vacation if need be.

A Republican called his bluff. "What's new about that? What's even threatening about that?" challenged Senator Mike Johanns, R-Nebraska.

Traditionally effective prods to action are often less so in the divided, crisis-managed Congress. Lawmakers have lurched from sequester to shutdown over spending, national health care and more in the three years since Republicans won control of the House with a sizable group of newcomers reluctant to compromise. Their approach proved costly - to the nation's credit rating, to Congress' standing among voters and to the GOP, which took the brunt of public blame for the partial government shutdown in October.

The scene has been no better in the Senate. What remained of that chamber's deliberative nature blew apart last month when majority Democrats, citing GOP obstructionism, curtailed the Republicans' power to block some presidential nominees.

Republicans have tried this week to do what they can to protest, but Reid's slate of 11 nominations didn't appear in peril. Early today, the Senate approved the first of those, voting 51-44 to confirm Cornelia "Nina" Pillard to the influential US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

President Barack Obama praised the confirmation of Pillard, the second judge seated on the DC Circuit this week, noting that Pillard would give the court five active female judges for the first time.

"Throughout her career, Ms Pillard has displayed an unwavering commitment to justice and integrity," Obama said.

Democrats continued their promised march of confirmation votes today, approving Chai Rachel Feldblum to be a Member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by a vote of 54-41. Two Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted for Feldblum.

The string of votes was expected to continue throughout the day with the Senate holding a procedural vote ahead of another midmorning confirmation vote on Elizabeth A Wolford to be a US district judge for the Western District of New York and several other confirmation votes planned.

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Still, with the 2014 midterm election year fast approaching, there was something unexpected this week: Instead of the standoffs, demands and disrespect that have become routine, key Republicans and Democrats announced a budget deal. Authored by Rep Paul Ryan, R-Wiconsin, and Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, and quickly endorsed by Obama, the agreement would avert another government shutdown in January and reverse US$63 billion in across-the-board spending cuts. It would offset the higher spending with US$85 billion over a decade from higher fees and modest curbs on government benefit programs.

What's more, House conservatives didn't kill it outright, although some grumbled about the spending levels. Liberals, meanwhile, complained that the deal would not include an extension of unemployment benefits set to expire December 28 for 1.3 million Americans.

But the deal survived the day.

The negotiators spoke today of finding common ground, however narrow, in pursuit of a larger goal.

"On balance, my view is this is a step forward," said Rep Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland. "A small one, but a step forward."

Ryan told the House Rules Committee, "We have shown that we can work together."

In the Senate, it wasn't immediately clear whether Republican conservatives would follow their House counterparts and grudgingly accept the Ryan-Murray budget, or rebel against it.

Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who like Ryan is counted among his party's presidential contenders, criticized the deal. "'I think to walk away from the already agreed-upon reductions in spending that were so difficult to achieve, I think opens the floodgates that really threaten to put us right back in these spending habits, and really, we're going to continue to have a government that spends more money than it takes in," he said.

In any case, GOP senators were focused yesterday and early today on doing what they could to protest the Democrats' change in Senate rules. On November 21, Democrats pared the threshold for stopping filibusters from 60 votes to a simple majority. The lower threshold applies to nearly all presidential nominations but does not affect nominated Supreme Court justices or legislation.

On Monday, Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, objected to Reid's request for unanimous approval of 76 nominees, including Janet Yellen, Obama's choice to head the Federal Reserve. Also on the list are Jeh Johnson, Obama's choice for Homeland Security secretary, and Deborah Lee James, for secretary of the Air Force. Most of the nominations, though, are for middle- or lower-level posts like ambassadors and federal judges.

On Tuesday, Republicans invoked a little-known rule to postpone a committee vote on the nomination of John Koskinen, Obama's choice to head the Internal Revenue Service.

Reid had set in motion the votes for 11 of the nominees, most of them non-controversial. Late Wednesday, he asked for unanimous consent to waive some of the required debate time and begin voting at 9am local time Thursday morning. Republicans objected, and an all-night talkathon began. If Republicans refuse to give up their allotted debate time, the Senate could be in session continuously into Saturday - or longer.

"If we have to work through Christmas, we're going to do that," Reid warned from the Senate floor.

"The Republicans are wanting to waste more of this body's time, this country's time," he added. Senate aides carted in Listerine, fruit, chocolate and mints for what appeared to be a long night ahead. "We are here ... looking at each other, doing basically nothing, as we have done for vast amounts of time, because of the Republicans' obstructionism."

"This isn't about obstructionism," fired back Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma. "You limited our rights."

- AP

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