Congress ended its business for the year last Friday (December 19th) with Democrats and Republicans battling over procedural rules for confirming President Obama’s nominees. In a series of largely party-line votes, the Senate approved the confirmations of a deputy to the Department of Homeland Security, a federal district judge and a commissioner to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The Senate also moved Janet Yellen to the brink of becoming chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, voting 59-34 to end debate on her nomination. The chamber plans to confirm her to the post when it returns Jan. 6 from its holiday break. On Thursday, Senators voted to approve the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 3304).

Late last week, the Senate passed a two-year budget blueprint to diffuse the threat of another government shutdown and alleviate the sharp spending cuts embedded in sequestration. Lawmakers approved the legislation (H.J.Res. 59) last Wednesday in a 64-36 vote, six days after it cleared the House by a margin of 332-94. President Obama plans to sign the measure into law. Negotiated by Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the bill sets government spending levels through October 2015, while reducing sequestration cuts by $63 billion over the next two years. Passage of the measure will permit House and Senate appropriators to draft an omnibus measure to fund the government through the end of fiscal 2014.  The deal is expected to go some distance to alleviate cuts to campus-based financial aid programs and federal research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

In other activity, Senators voted late Thursday to approve a defense bill (H.R. 3304) and reached a deal to allow for the confirmation of three Presidential nominees. The Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 3304) 84 to 15. It then voted 55 to 45 to break a filibuster on the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to be the deputy secretary of Homeland Security. On Friday, Senators held a series of votes on the nominations of Mayorkas; John Koskinen to be commissioner of the IRS; and Brian Davis to be a federal district judge for Florida. A confirmation vote on Janet Yellen to be chairwoman of the Federal Reserve was pushed to January 6. The postponement came as Democratic leaders faced delaying tactics from Senate Republicans, who oppose new rules that limit the use of filibusters.

In notable health reform implementation news, the White House unveiled another significant rule change to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) last week. On Thursday, HHS said it would temporarily waive the individual mandate for people who had their policies canceled, allowing them to buy less comprehensive catastrophic coverage next year if new plans are more expensive. The change was outlined in a letter to Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Angus King (I-ME) and Tim Kaine (D-VA). Off the Hill, President Obama held a news conference Friday, during which he acknowledged the health law rollout was likely his biggest mistake of the year. But he defended the ACA overall, pointing to a big increase in exchange enrollment this month as evidence that it will ultimately benefit millions of Americans.

- Carol Holladay, ACPA Pubic Policy Liaison

Please read the complete U.S. Capitol Hill Update for December 23, 2013 here.