The Senate concluded its legislative work for the year today, approving a sweeping omnibus bill and legislation to extend a payroll tax holiday, unemployment benefits and the Medicare "doc fix," in addition to a disaster relief bill.
The Senate approved the full-year appropriations bill, which passed the House Friday, 67-32. The legislation now goes President Barack Obama's desk to be signed into law.
But the achievement of passing an actual package of appropriations bills, significant because of Congress' recent reliance on stop-gap measures known as continuing resolutions, was overshadowed by a protracted fight over the year-end extenders package that did not find resolution until late Friday evening.
The Senate cleared the two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, unemployment insurance and a patch for reimbursements for doctors who treat Medicare patients on an 89-10 vote. The measure included a contentious provision regarding the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which the president had said he would not accept.
Now, if the House passes the package early next week, Obama likely will have to sign into law the Keystone language, which would require the administration to decide within 60 days whether to authorize the project.
Democrats had been fighting for a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut, though only a few weeks ago they had also advocated expanding it to employers and increasing the breaks to employees.
Republicans wanted sweeping unemployment insurance reform that would drastically reduce the number of weeks the unemployed would qualify for benefits, allow states to drug test as a condition for benefits and create a largely unfunded mandate to require unemployed Americans without high school degrees to make progress toward a GED certificate.
By not agreeing to a year-long deal, the debate has simply been pushed to February. But benefits for the unemployed and tax breaks for workers will not be dropped around the holidays, and that is a small victory, lawmakers say.
It wasn't always clear negotiators would be able to come to agreement, even on a more modest alternative. Early last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had been encouraged to negotiate a deal by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The largest sticking point between Democrats and Republicans was how to pay for the bill. Congress historically has not offset all tax cuts nor unemployment benefit extensions in tough economic times, but the deficit-reduction focus in the Capitol changed the approach.
Democratic aides familiar with the negotiations between Reid and McConnell said Friday evening that the one-year plan would have been offset with a handful of measures, including $120 billion in mandatory cuts identified by the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction and a variety of new revenues, including $3 billion from killing a corporate jet tax break and reforms to the tax code for Americans who file as S corporations.
McConnell on Friday dismissed the pay-fors proposed by Democrats for the larger bill as "not credible." Republicans wanted to include cuts to Medicare benefits as part of the offsets.
Today the Senate began voting on the agreement without a score from the Congressional Budget Office, a rare move that could have backfired on leaders had the non-partisan office come back with a report that indicated the legislation added to the deficit. In the middle of the vote, a score showing that the package would reduce the deficit by $3 billion was made available. The overall price tag for the short-term measure is $32.7 billion dollars, and the way it is paid for — an increase in mortgage fees by government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — is projected to bring $35.7 billion back in to government coffers. Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Jim DeMint (S.C.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.), as well as Independent Bernie Sanders (Vt.) voted against the package.
Today's votes were the Senate's last of the year. House Republican leaders are weighing their options for bringing Members back to Washington, D.C., to vote on the two-month deal.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.