A pileup of nominations — particularly for scores of would-be U.S. ambassadors — has the Obama administration pushing hard for Senate action ahead of the August recess, while senators want to get home to campaign before the midterms.
There are 224 executive and 29 judicial nominations awaiting Senate action, according to the White House, including many whose lives have been on hold for a year or more. The Senate last year used the "nuclear option" to change the rules so a simple majority can confirm most nominations — and that move has shrunk the judicial backlog.
But a backlog has built up in executive branch nominees, including 56 ambassadors.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to voice concern over the pileup, and a State Department spokesman said the former Massachusetts senator was expected to speak by phone with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday while traveling in the Middle East.
"We hope the Senate will come to agreement to confirm nominees before heading into recess," Assistant Secretary Doug Frantz said in a statement Monday. "There is plenty of time remaining in July to do so, particularly if they can reach an agreement to approve the career nominees in a block as Secretary Kerry has proposed."
"We are redoubling our efforts on ambassadors," said a senior Senate Democratic aide. But that doesn't necessarily mean Democrats are about to threaten the August break to confirm them.
"These ambassadors are America’s front lines, fighting to defend our interests abroad — our security interests, our national interests, and our economic interests," Reid said last week. "Right now, there are gaping holes in our nation's front lines. ... A quarter of all American embassies are without an ambassador.”
After the rules change, Republicans retaliated by slow-walking numerous nominees; the rules change allowed a simple majority to advance nominees but kept in place time limits that allow Republicans to force Democrats to burn days of floor time to get to a final vote.
"Some Senate observers say that Republicans are stalling these nominations as payback for the rules changes instituted by the Senate," Reid said. "Let me see if I can wrap my head around this — Republicans are stalling executive nominees vital to our national security to get back at Democrats? To get back at me? Stalling these nominees is jeopardizing America’s interests abroad. It is damaging our nation's role in global affairs. It is damaging our national security. Is this conjured-up political retribution worth harming the U.S.?"
Republicans say Democrats only have themselves to blame.
"Their complaint assumes there should be no consequences for Majority Leader Reid breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules on the processing of nominations," the Senate Republican Policy Committee wrote in an issue brief. "The consequences of that act were predictable. Senator Obama predicted the consequences himself when a rules change was contemplated in 2005, saying, 'If they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness, and the gridlock will only get worse.'"
The nominations backlog in the ambassadorial ranks has been a recurring topic of discussion at the regular State Department press briefings in recent weeks.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki likened the Kerry proposal to accelerate career appointees to the way the Senate treats military promotions.
"And just to not to put too fine a point on it, obviously for America to continue to play a strong role in the world, we need equal treatment for diplomats, we need to have ambassadors and our representatives on the front lines in these countries around the world," she said on July 9.
Asked if the nuclear option has contributed to the backlog, Psaki dismissed the contention.
"There has been a logjam in the Senate on the Senate floor about nominations and legislation long before ... Majority Leader Reid moved forward with the nuclear option several months ago. That was put in place because there was a complete deadlock on getting anything done in the Senate at all," she said.
Democrats have also highlighted delays of top veterans' officials — some waiting more than a year for confirmation even as the crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs unfolded.
Numerous other would-be officials are awaiting their fate. If they don't get confirmation before the August recess, they'll be waiting months longer for confirmation — or be stalled forever — given that the Senate will have a limited schedule before the November elections and faces a lame-duck session where floor time will be at a premium.
At some point, Senate Democrats could deploy the nuclear option again to cut down on what the Senate aide calls the "slow-motion temper tantrum."
At the beginning of this Congress in January 2013, the chamber adopted a bipartisan agreement that reduced the post-cloture debate time for certain nominations. That agreement will expire at the end of the year.
If they manage to maintain the majority, Democrats would have to either negotiate time rules with Republicans or use the nuclear option again.
Given the mounting frustrations, "If it comes to a head, the caucus will be more supportive," the aide predicted.
Correction 6:42 p.m. An earlier version of this post misattributed the quote from the Republican Policy Committee.