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Senate extends tax breaks, confirms nominees as session ends

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed the last batch of President 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.

The Senate adjourned at 11:24 p.m., officially ending the 113th Congress.

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 Mr. 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.

Senate passes government spending bill

Rasmussen is currently the deputy director, a post he has held since 2012. He served on the National Security Council from 2007 to 2012, where he was a special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism.

In addition, the Senate voted 55-38 to approve the president's nominee to be Deputy Secretary of State, despite criticism from Sen. John McCain and other Republicans. Tony Blinken, who is replacing the retiring William Burns, joined the White House in 2009 as a top aide to Vice President Joe Biden. He later became Mr. Obama's deputy national security adviser and a key player on foreign policy issues, including the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Mark Rosekind, 59, a human fatigue expert, was approved to be administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The government's auto safety agency has faced complaints that regulators bungled two high-profile recalls this year involving faulty ignition switches and exploding air bags.

Automakers have recalled 55 million vehicles in the U.S. so far this year. The previous record was 30.8 million vehicles in 2004. At least 38 people have been killed as a result of faulty General Motors ignition switches. A recall of exploding Takata airbags may be the largest recall in the auto safety agency's history.

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

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.

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