Nominee Standoff Continues

Posted April 2, 2004 at 6:00pm

The White House and Senate Democrats remain at a standoff over executive and judicial nominations, with each side demanding that the other take the first step to end the long-running battle that has frozen the process in place.

Digging in for what could be a lengthy impasse, Senate Democrats held to their blockade of nominees last week, allowing just one — new Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson — to be confirmed.

While GOP aides reported some progress in talks on executive nominations, Democrats said they haven’t heard any reply from White House officials since Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) formally declared the end of the confirmation process in a floor speech March 26.

“We’re still waiting to hear back, nothing but the sound of silence,” Todd Webster, Daschle’s spokesman, said Friday.

The White House remained defiant last week, insisting that the Democrats make the first move and contending that a guarantee of up-or-down votes on President Bush’s judicial nominees would lift any threat of recess appointments of controversial judges — one of the two major sticking points in the current fight.

“It’s unfortunate the lengths that a minority of Senators would go to obstruct the process,” said Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman.

And Senate Republicans were adamant that Bush not give in to the Democratic demands, insisting that he retain his right to make recess appointments.

“That’s not a viable option,” Amy Call, spokeswoman for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said of giving up recess appointments. “All the presidents have the power to make recess appointments. I don’t think Senator Frist thinks [Bush] should give up that right.”

Democrats said that they allowed Jackson’s confirmation because he was a Cabinet-level official, and their dispute with President Bush centered on judicial appointments and those to bipartisan boards, agencies and commissions. One Democratic aide called Cabinet appointees like Jackson “another kettle of fish.”

By the end of last week there were at least two dozen executive branch nominees on the Senate calendar awaiting a vote and, with the approval of seven more Thursday by the Judiciary Committee, 29 judicial nominees are awaiting a floor vote.

Even without the current deadlock on nominations, one of those passed out of Judiciary, William Myers for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, could be facing a filibuster by Democrats. Myers is opposed by Democrats and liberal interest groups, particularly the Sierra Club, who view him as too friendly to business interests in the West.

He passed on a pure party-line vote, 10-9, a tally that has become perhaps the surest indication of a future filibuster. Of the six judicial nominees who’ve been filibustered by Democrats, each passed on a party-line vote in committee.

Bush raised the stakes in the nomination battle earlier this year when he gave recess appointments to two nominees who had been refused an up-or-down vote by Democrats, Judge Charles Pickering of the 5th Circuit and Judge William Pryor of the 11th Circuit.

Each side has labeled the other’s actions unprecedented and unconstitutional, with Democrats calling recess appointments of unapproved judges unprecedented and Republicans calling filibusters a direct slap at the confirmation process.

Just as nettlesome an issue is the White House’s movement on filling Democratic slots to boards and commissions, the bipartisan agencies whose positions are generally filled in equal numbers by Congressional Republicans and Democrats, with the White House makes the tie-breaking appointment.

Daschle has bitterly complained that as many as two dozen of their recommendations have languished at the White House, either having been rejected or delayed. While the White House and Senate Republicans won’t officially say the Democratic spots on boards and commissions are linked to judicial nominations, it appears doubtful that Daschle will gain a quicker pace on these slots until the fight over filibusters is somehow resolved.

One Senate GOP aide said Friday that there had been staff-level talks between Daschle’s office and the White House on the dispute over boards and commissions.

While a deal is not at hand, it’s a far better climate on executive rather than judicial nominations. “It’ll take some time,” the Senate aide said of a deal on executive nominees. “But it’s a good sign that there is a back-and-forth.”

Another GOP aide said Daschle’s complaints about the Democratic spots for boards and commissions are overblown, noting that the White House has not limited its approval to “Democratic friendlies,” repeatedly pointing to former Sen. Max Cleland’s (D-Ga.) confirmation to the Export-Import Bank as evidence of that. Cleland has emerged as one of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) staunchest attack dogs on Bush, questioning the president’s war in Iraq and his commitment to military service in the 1970s. Yet at Daschle’s recommendation, Cleland was nevertheless nominated.

“We’ve always maintained that relationship, and Max Cleland is a perfect example of that,” a GOP source said.