With just two days to go until the Thanksgiving recess, Democratic leaders once again are considering holding the Senate in a series of pro forma sessions to stop President Bush from using the break to install any of his outstanding executive branch nominees.
The move comes as speculation mounts that Bush will use the period to push through some controversial appointments while Senators are out of town for the two-week period. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could all but block the president from doing so, however, if he opts to call the chamber into nonvoting sessions every three days — thus doing away with an extended recess.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley declined Wednesday to outline the Democratic Leader’s plans, only to say that the Senator hopes “to try to avoid” any unnecessary battles with the president over recess appointments. He did acknowledge the idea of holding pro forma sessions is being discussed.
“As we head into the recess, we are talking to the White House about how to avoid any possible confrontations over nominations,” Manley said.
Democrats essentially have two choices when it comes to avoiding the controversial installments — keep the Senate working, or strike a deal with the administration to ensure that they don’t happen. In August, the most recent lengthy Senate break, Reid and the White House brokered an agreement whereby the Senate pushed through a series of outstanding nominees before leaving town in exchange for a truce over recess picks.
Since then, however, tensions have risen between the two branches, and on Wednesday sources said Reid doesn’t seem willing to negotiate with the White House this time. Also, several Senate aides suggested that Bush is increasingly likely to exercise the option since the clock is ticking on the second term of his presidency.
“I don’t think it should surprise anybody,” said one GOP leadership aide.
Several delayed executive branch selections could be ripe for a November recess appointment, but top among them is the stalled confirmation of surgeon general hopeful James Holsinger, whose confirmation has come under a firestorm of criticism from Senate Democrats and gay rights organizations.
That possibility recently has been fueled on the Internet, particularly from liberal bloggers who have speculated that Bush may look to circumvent the overwhelming Democratic opposition to Holsinger by putting him in the post while Congress is home for Thanksgiving.
Holsinger went before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July, but panel members have yet to vote on his installment as they await his response to a series of their follow-up questions.
Senators in both parties said Wednesday that they couldn’t predict whether the White House would look to tap Holsinger over the recess — or any other nominee for that matter — but none said they would be taken aback given the increasingly strained relationship between Bush and Congressional Democrats. What’s more, several reminded that Bush may not want to wait until 2008 to win approval for already lagging nominations.
“I’m not aware of anything that’s in the works,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said. “But it’s logical that it would probably occur. Why wouldn’t he use that mechanism?”
Gregg called it a “reasonable management tool” for a president heading into the final 14 months of his term.
With that in mind, Senate Democrats said they have little faith that Bush will play nice and refrain from making the controversial appointments. Democrats have been blindsided by Bush before, particularly in April when the president tapped three controversial nominees for executive branch slots.
“I always worry about it,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
“I think every time there’s a recess, people are concerned that the president might use that” option, echoed Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the Democratic Conference secretary.
Democrats are still recovering from the hangover of GOP donor Sam Fox, whom Bush named as ambassador to Belgium during the Easter recess. Fox had contributed to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which helped sink the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Many believe the Fox appointment, along with two other controversial nominations from the same period in April, prompted Reid to agree to the arrangement with the administration before heading into the August break.
Although a similar deal for November isn’t off the table, neither side seemed to be leaning toward striking one as of Wednesday night.
Democrats, for their part, are no doubt hardened after narrowly agreeing to Bush’s pick for attorney general in Michael Mukasey, and his controversial selection for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court in Leslie Southwick.
Republicans, meantime, are stockpiling whatever influence they can as the minority party and already foresee the possibility of a Democratic White House in 2009. With that in mind, several GOP Senate sources say they welcome any recess appointment fight.
“I’m not hearing anything about it, but I always encourage it over the recess and I always anticipate one,” a Republican leadership aide said.