Washington Digest: Senate completes tax benefits bill, adjourns

WASHINGTON — Congress last week completed a bill that keeps alive — at least through this year — more than 50 tax breaks worth $42 billion to businesses and individuals.

In one of their final votes before adjourning Tuesday, senators voted 76-16 for the so-called “tax extenders” legislation, a collection of targeted tax benefits that are expiring at the end of this year or expired earlier this year. It allows taxpayers to claim the credits or deductions on their 2014 forms but would need to be extended again to be in effect for 2015.

The House approved the bill before it adjourned earlier this month, and the finished product was sent to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.

A more ambitious deal that would have made some of the tax breaks permanent while scrapping others collapsed this month. Lawmakers acknowledged the one-year extension was the best they could do, while noting a short-term bill does little to create certainty for investors and families trying to plan expenses.

“This tax bill doesn’t have the shelf life of a carton of eggs,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The measure contains a variety of benefits, the largest for business being a write-off for certain research and development costs. It also allows residents of states such as Nevada that have no income tax to deduct sales taxes instead. Also, it allows deductions of up to $4,000 for college tuition.

Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted for the bill.

SPENDING BILL OK’D

The Senate also gave final approval to a $1.1 trillion bill that sets spending levels for most of the government. The vote averted another government shutdown.

The bill funds all departments through September except the Department of Homeland Security. Conservatives insisted authorization for that department expire in February to give law­makers a chance to debate whether to fund Obama’s executive action allowing millions of immigrants in the country illegally to escape deportation.

It contains controversial provisions that drew opposition from liberals, too. They said it will water down federal regulation of big banks that Congress put in place just a few years ago in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Also drawing fire was a section that increases by almost 10 times the amount of money individuals can donate to political parties.

The Senate vote that passed the bill and sent it to the White House was 56-40. Reid voted for it. Heller voted against it.

NOMINEES APPROVED

Democrats who will hand over Senate control in January engineered the last-minute confirmation of dozens of Obama-nominated judges and federal department executives.

Many of the nominees were approved over the objections of Republicans, but the GOP’s ability to block them was limited by the rules change that Senate Majority Leader Reid put in place last year. It allows most nominations to be cleared by a simple majority vote rather than by 60 votes usually needed to end a filibuster.

Sarah Saldaña was confirmed to head the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency despite almost unanimous Republican opposition. GOP senators turned against Saldaña after she told them she supported Obama’s controversial immigration executive order.

Democrats said Saldaña, who is U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, was being opposed not because of her credentials but on political grounds.

“We cannot judge the qualifications of Sarah Saldaña to run Immigration and Customs Enforcement based solely on the fact that she agrees with the policy decisions of the president who nominated her,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

The vote on Saldaña was 55-39. Reid voted for her; Heller voted against her.

Senators also confirmed surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy, a Harvard- and Yale-educated doctor whose support for tighter gun control laws drew opposition from the National Rifle Association.

Murthy becomes the nation’s top spokesman on public health. He said he did not intend to use the office to promote gun control but was opposed by Republicans and some conservative Democrats anyway.

Murthy was confirmed 51-43. Reid voted for her; Heller voted against her.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.

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