Senate Democrats are appealing to their Republican colleagues to show a new spirit of bipartisanship and help streamline the Senate’s confirmation process for judicial and executive nominees.
The renewed focus on nominations comes as the Senate agenda looks to be far more modest than that of the 111th Congress, with Democrats playing defense against the new House Republican majority.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has ratcheted up his push for swifter confirmation of judges, complaining that the Senate approved far more of President George W. Bush’s nominees in his first two years — 100 — than for President Barack Obama — just 60.
Leahy noted that Chief Justice John Roberts wrote of the urgent need to fill the large number of court of vacancies in his annual report. According to Leahy’s office, there are 101 vacancies, including 47 classified as “emergencies,” with 42 nominations pending.
“These vacancies have reached historically high levels and resulted in overburdened courts that now face crippling caseloads,” Leahy said in a speech at the Newseum outlining his committee’s agenda Tuesday. Leahy blamed excessive partisanship for the delays and said he plans to work with the new ranking member on Judiciary, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and leadership in both parties to try to fill the openings quickly.
Republican aides pushed back against Leahy’s complaints, pinning much of the blame on Obama and Leahy. They charged that Obama was slow to nominate candidates for the bench and Leahy’s panel was slow to approve them.
More than 80 percent of the vacancies are because of Obama’s failure to nominate or the committee’s failure to approve nominees, senior GOP aides said.
Of the 19 nominees approved by the committee but blocked on the Senate floor, four were controversial and the rest only came to the floor in December, GOP aides said.
“We don’t know why Chairman Leahy would wait until the final weeks of a lame-duck Congress to report out nominees for vacancies that have been pending for years, but he and the administration waited until the last minute to do so,” a senior GOP aide said. The Senate confirmed 19 judges in the lame duck, compared with zero in Bush’s last lame-duck session and just four in the previous two lame-duck sessions — one of which came over Democratic objections, the aide noted.
But Leahy complained that many of the confirmed judges in the lame-duck session had to wait months before being unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
“We cannot ask people to take on public service as a judge and then subject them to needless, unexplained, humiliating partisan delays in the confirmation process,” he said, even referencing the murder of U.S. District Judge John Roll in the Arizona shooting.
“You’ve got good men and women who are willing to serve. Let them do that,” he said.
Leahy said he anticipates pushing judges through to the floor without further hearings if they already had a hearing in the 111th Congress, particularly those nominees who passed the committee on unanimous votes but were then blocked on the floor.
A senior Senate aide said Leahy hopes to avoid long delays for noncontroversial nominees such as Albert Diaz of North Carolina, who had the support of home-state Republican Senators and yet spent nearly a year waiting for a vote.
Both parties have been frustrated with the process when a president from their party is in the White House. When Republicans controlled the Senate, they threatened to eliminate filibusters for judicial nominees when Democrats blocked confirmation votes for some circuit court judges, a threat Democrats ripped as the “nuclear option.” Now Democrats are examining ways to tighten filibuster rules and eliminate secret holds that allow Senators to block nominations anonymously.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have set up a bipartisan working group intended to streamline the Senate’s process of confirming executive nominations. Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) head the group, with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) also participating.
“A number of us have tried it before and failed,” Alexander said in a brief interview last week. “I made a speech last year called ‘Innocent Until Nominated’ trying to do something about all the maze of conflicting forms that you have to fill out. … You come up for a hearing, you make a mistake and suddenly you’re called a criminal.”
Members of both parties also agree that there are probably too many executive positions requiring Senate approval, Alexander said.
“I’m not sure it’s worth the Senate’s time to confirm the public relations officer for a department,” he said.