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The bipartisan deal struck to streamline the Senate’s confirmation process has run into a major obstacle, not unlike most everything else that Republicans and Democrats have attempted to do together this year.
Conservative Sen. Tom Coburn said last week that he’s still fighting a bill that would eliminate Senate confirmation for more than 200 administration nominees. An estimated 1,215 now require confirmation.
“There needs to be some work on the bill before I’m ready to see it come to the floor,” the Oklahoma Republican told Roll Call.
“I can give you three instances of people who would be excluded in that who ended up not getting appointments because of an FBI investigation,” he added. Senate confirmed nominees go through FBI background checks.
The bill, a product of negotiations between Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), would start to roll back the explosion of Senate-confirmed positions since the 1960s while simplifying the process for nominees. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the bill April 13, but Coburn, who sits on the panel, opposed it.
Coburn has also resisted a companion Senate rules change intended to expedite consideration of nearly 250 other nominations, citing a May 13 Congressional Research Service report that he requested.
A senior Democratic aide dismissed Coburn’s complaints and said the package would easily pass the Senate.
“Its passage is assured, and the fact that Dr. No may be inclined to hold it up is not the barometer of whether it’s going to pass or not,” the aide said, referring to Coburn.
Indeed, if the Senator tries to hold up the measures, the aide said, it’s “almost a microcosm of the larger problem this bill is trying to solve. ... In a body of 100, there will always be someone willing to nitpick or criticize or take hostages.”
But Coburn said in a statement that a rules change isn’t necessary.
“The CRS findings indicate a failure to act by just a few committees — rather than a dysfunctional institutional glitch or partisan gamesmanship — is the real cause of the vast majority of backlogged nominees,” he said. “Changing Senate rules would be unlikely to fix that problem. What is needed is to get this handful of committees to do their job.”
The CRS report found that of the 118 nominees awaiting Senate action as of May 6, 87 were in just three committees — Foreign Relations, Judiciary, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The bill to reduce the number of nominations has also taken fire from some conservative groups. David Addington, former chief of staff to then-Vice President Dick Cheney and a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, said in an
April 1 post that the Senate should accelerate its reviews of nominees but not cede more power to the executive branch.
But backers of the legislation have said that many of the positions aren’t worthy of the Senate’s time and that the cumbersome and often-lengthy confirmation process — which averaged more than three months in the last Congress and sometimes takes more than a year — dissuades talented people from agreeing to work for the government.
Most nominees are eventually confirmed by unanimous consent. The CRS report shows just 28 nonjudicial nominees in the 111th Congress were con-firmed with a roll-call vote and none as of May 6 in the 112th Congress.
The CRS report also found that nominees had to wait an average of 92 days before confirmation in the last Congress. That number has dipped to 75 days so far this Congress, but the CRS speculates that was due to the backlog at the start of the Obama administration.
Democratic aides said the package, which has the support of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), could come to the floor early in the next work period, with or without Coburn’s support.
One aide speculated that it could be tougher for Republicans to stall the reforms after they filibustered the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, lest they look like obstructionists. The filibuster of Liu was the first since a 2005 bipartisan agreement by the “gang of 14” that preserved the right to filibuster judicial nominees under “extraordinary” circumstances.
Earlier this year, the Schumer-Alexander deal had been hailed by each party’s leadership in a rare kumbaya moment that came after Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and McConnell came to a gentleman’s agreement that averted a showdown over filibuster rule changes. At the time, talk of bipartisanship and open debate in the Senate was ascendant. But in recent weeks that bipartisan spirit has waned.
Republicans have been threatening to take nominations hostage to gain leverage over the Obama administration. They have vowed to block trade-related nominees until President Barack Obama submits all three pending trade agreements as well as to block anyone he chooses for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board.
Plus, nomination fights such as the Liu vote and an earlier filibuster of James Cole’s nomination to be deputy attorney general have taken up more of the Senate calendar given a glacially slow legislative pace so far this year.