Gridlock in the Senate, progress in the House
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 polarized, 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 Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.
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 Thursday morning, the Senate approved the first of those, voting 51-44 to confirm Cornelia "Nina" Pillard to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
President Barack Obama praised the confirmation of Pillard, the second judge seated on the D.C. 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 on Thursday, approving Chai Rachel Feldblum for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Elizabeth A. Wolford to be a judge for the Western District of New York and Landya B. McCafferty for a judgeship in the U.S. District of New Hampshire.
Also approved were Patricia M. Wald to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and Brian Morris and Susan Watters to be judges for the U.S. District of Montana.
Amid the marathon of confirmation votes, Republicans used another tool to poke Democrats and slow nominations by invoking a rule that can stop Senate committees from meeting if they start more than two hours after the chamber convenes each day. Republicans scuttled three scheduled meetings on nominations - two of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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.
Then they did something even more remarkable: They pushed the measure with uncharacteristic ease through the House, where open warfare between the two parties is the usual standard. The vote was 332-94, which now moves to the Senate.
Authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and quickly endorsed by Obama, the agreement would avert another government shutdown in January and reverse $63 billion in across-the-board spending cuts. It would offset the higher spending with $85 billion over a decade from higher fees and modest curbs on government benefit programs.
The negotiators spoke 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-Md. "A small one, but a step forward."
"We have shown that we can work together," said Ryan.
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.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., 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," he said.
In any case, GOP senators were focused on doing what they could to protest the Democrats' change in Senate rules. On Nov. 21, Democrats pared the threshold for stopping most filibusters from 60 votes to a simple majority. The lower threshold applies to nearly all presidential nominations, but not for Supreme Court justices or legislation.
The nominees Reid wants to confirm before the Senate adjourns for the year include Janet Yellen, Obama's choice to head the Federal Reserve; Jeh Johnson, Obama's pick for Homeland Security secretary; and Deborah Lee James, for secretary of the Air Force.
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.
He added, "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 Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "You limited our rights."
Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.