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Senate to Stay in Pro Forma Session Over Break After Final Talks on Nominees Break Down

Following hours of intense talks that ended in a standoff, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decided late Wednesday to move several dozen nominees but still keep the Senate in business over the monthlong holiday break to block President Bush from making any controversial recess appointments while Senators are out of town.

Reid’s decision came after an afternoon of private negotiations with the White House to try to craft a far-reaching deal didn’t pan out. The two sides had tried to broker an agreement under which the Senate would agree to usher through scores of outstanding executive branch nominations — including some Democrats favored — so long as Bush opted against installing any incendiary picks in Senators’ four-week absence.

The Senate moved Wednesday night to approve by voice vote 60 Republican picks for executive branch posts and eight Democratic picks.

But the two sides didn’t see completely eye to eye, as Bush pushed to include in the deal Steven Bradbury’s nomination to be assistant counsel to the attorney general. Bradbury is unpopular with Democrats for his controversial role in formulating the administration’s position on torture.

“I tried very hard to work with the president but he indicated he would still use the recess ... to appoint objectionable nominees,” Reid said on the Senate floor Wednesday night. “My only solution is to end this and call a pro forma session again.”

As such, Reid will stick to his earlier plan to hold the Senate in a series of pro forma, or nonvoting, sessions about every third day until the chamber returns on Jan. 22. The move keeps the Senate technically operating and thus prevents Bush from making the recess appointments.

In a brief interview earlier Wednesday evening, Reid expressed frustration with the lack of movement toward a deal but said he remained optimistic that the two sides might still meet in the middle. Asked whether he thought it could come together before the end of the day, Reid said: “That’s my hope.”

“We are continuing to negotiate,” Reid said at the time. “I’ve spoken three times today with [White House Chief of Staff] Josh Bolten.”

Democrats have been wary of going into a recess since their April break when the Bush administration opted to fill three controversial executive vacancies while Senators were out of town. Among those installed was prominent Republican donor Sam Fox as ambassador to Belgium.

The hangover from the Fox appointment prompted Reid and the White House to broker a recess appointment truce before heading into the monthlong August break. The two sides agreed then to push through more than 70 outstanding nominees in exchange for a recess-appointment-free period.

But such agreements have been elusive in recent months, including in November when the two sides attempted but failed to reach a recess deal before Senators went home for the two-week Thanksgiving holiday. During that period, Reid held the pro forma sessions and charged several Democratic Senators with the duty of gaveling the chamber into business — albeit briefly — every few days.

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D) will gavel the Senate into at least four of the pro forma sessions during the upcoming recess.

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