Fights over nominations have begun to dominate the Senate’s agenda as both parties look for places to one-up each other in a chamber with little else to do.
Republicans last week threatened to block President Barack Obama’s nominees as a way to gain leverage on other issues. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) shifted chamber action to several of the White House’s more controversial nominees after spending five fruitless weeks of floor time on a small-business bill.
Aides to both parties said the nominating process is still working better than it did in the past Congress. In fact, the pace for approving judges has improved this year following a gentlemen’s agreement between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and a subsequent bipartisan deal to reduce the number of appointments that need Senate confirmation.
But taking nominees hostage is still a popular pastime.
Obama hasn’t even nominated a director for the controversial new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but 44 Republicans sent a pre-emptive missive to the White House on Thursday vowing to block anyone he chooses. Only 41 votes are needed to filibuster a nominee.
The letter, signed by all but two GOP Senators, demanded that Obama make “structural changes ... to hold the Bureau more accountable to the American people.” Another demand is to replace the director position with a board. The threat essentially seeks to serve as a rematch over last year’s regulatory reform battle, with the Republican Senators trying to limit the new bureau’s sweeping powers — and probably ensuring that the post will be filled by a recess appointment that bypasses the Senate entirely.
Republicans also applied the same tactic last week to a brewing fight over a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board against the Boeing Co.’s plans to open up a non-union airline plant in South Carolina.
Nineteen Republican Senators led by Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) wrote to Obama and vowed to use every procedural tool at their disposal to block the confirmations of Craig Becker to the board and Lafe Solomon as the board’s general counsel.
“Successful workers rights are being stamped out by political appointees who serve at your pleasure and have not been confirmed by the Senate,” they wrote. They complained that Obama had installed labor lawyer Becker with a recess appointment even though 41 Republican Senators sent him a letter urging him not to do so.
“The Senate has been unacceptably denied the ability to exercise its constitutional duty,” they said. The president is permitted to appoint temporary custodians when Congress takes long recesses, but the practice often stokes partisan ire in the Capitol.
Earlier this year, McConnell threatened to block all of Obama’s trade nominations until the president sends to Congress all three pending trade agreements — South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
That threat appears to be bearing fruit. The administration announced last week that it is moving forward on completing all three.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.