Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is putting the pedal to the metal to confirm President Barack Obama's judicial nominees.
Senate Republicans had begun to wonder when the Nevada Democrat would force the issue. He could have chosen to do so at any time, since the precedent set when he deployed the "nuclear option" in November eliminated the ability of a minority of senators to block nominations.
But to advance nominees without a consent agreement, Reid must still file cloture and burn valuable time. He did that before recess began, setting up debate-limiting votes on four Obama nominees to be district judges for when the Senate returns Feb. 24. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, one of the leading GOP voices in the world of rules and precedents, last week said he would prefer that Reid just go ahead and get the procedural gears in motion.
"I think it would be better for the Senate and the country if he would go ahead and confirm the nominations as they come up," Alexander said, noting that new debate limits on lower-level positions established at the start of the current Congress mean more nominations can be moved in the course of a few days.
As a practical matter, nominees to be district judges will only need up to one hour of debate because the other hour is controlled by Democrats.
Republicans have been reluctant to consent to letting through the customary slew of nominees just before a recess period by unanimous consent, but the nuclear winter has begun to show signs of a thaw.
The Senate swiftly confirmed now-former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as ambassador to China and moved ahead with confirming nominees to more executive branch posts during the weather-shortened week, but the Senate's executive calendar is still packed with potential judges and executive branch officers.
Last week's confirmations included Richard Stengel, who had been Time magazine's managing editor, to be undersecretary of State for public diplomacy. The Senate also confirmed a number of other executive branch nominees by voice vote before getting out of town.
Looking ahead, there's an agreement to set up a vote on the nomination Michael L. Connor to be deputy secretary of the Interior.
Alexander said he doesn't think the events of last November should totally put the brakes on the confirmation process.
"I mean, they're piling up. It concerns me," Alexander said of pending nominations. "We could work Mondays; we could work Fridays."
One senior Democratic aide said the precedent of filing cloture on every noncontroversial nominee is a practice Democrats would prefer to avoid. There are far too many positions subject to Senate confirmation to work through all the debate time.
Individual Democrats have begun to push for votes and consent to confirm nominees without repeating the around-the-clock sessions that became common in December.
For instance, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., made an ultimately successful bid to push for expedited consideration of Andrew Luger to be U.S. attorney in her home state. The Senate confirmed Luger last week by voice vote.
"The Senate has a history of filling this important position quickly. Nominees have not been used as pawns in some kind of a disagreement over issues. They have simply been confirmed," Klobuchar said in a recent floor speech. "We have simply gotten it done."
The Minnesota case was particularly unusual since Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director B. Todd Jones held the ATF post in an acting capacity while also serving as U.S. attorney, meaning that he spent a significant amount of time handling other business.
Judicial nominees seem to be a distinct case where Republicans are drawing a line in the sand, a point made clear by Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, during a floor exchange last week when Reid tried to get consent to confirm the latest batch of judicial nominees without the cloture process.
"The majority leader would like to short-circuit the process which was put in place as a result of the nuclear option and seek to get confirmation of these judicial nominees by unanimous consent," Cornyn said. "My hope would be that the majority leader would choose to reverse the partisan rules change so we can go back to the bipartisan cooperative process which resulted in more than 200 Obama judges being confirmed. Absent that, I object."
Earlier in the day, Sen. Mark Pryor had tried and failed to get consent to get votes lined up to confirm a pair of nominees to the federal bench in his home state of Arkansas.
The Democrat cited an unusual situation with one of the nominees, James Maxwell Moody Jr., who holds an elected judicial office. There's an upcoming election for that judge's current post and the filing deadline is fast approaching.
"We have other lawyers and judges interested in that position, and there is a domino effect that happens in Arkansas because of that," Pryor explained.
Moody's name subsequently appeared on the list of judicial nominees that Reid lined up cloture votes for after the recess.
"I think the whole event in November was a manufactured crisis just to get three circuit judges, but there's no need to perpetuate that," Alexander said. "The ball's in [Reid's] court. He can bring ... any other district judge up, file cloture, wait one day and he can bring 10 up at a time if he wants to."