Senators Eye Nominations Fix

Posted April 21, 2009 at 6:49pm

With scores of executive branch nominees awaiting Senate consideration and even more yet to be proposed by President Barack Obama, a small group of Senators is calling for a revamping of the confirmation process to reduce the overall number of nominees and to streamline their vetting.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine), along with Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), on Tuesday floated the idea of revising the nominations process during a weekly, Senator-only “bipartisan breakfast.—

The trio told the Senators in attendance that the amount of time and resources spent reviewing each executive nominee can be excessive and can prevent a president from getting his administration up and running quickly. Plus, the three Senators argued, many nominees never even see a Senate roll-call vote or require any serious debate.

Although the Senators’ proposal is still being worked out, it is designed to speed the pace with which current and future White Houses are able to fill key slots at departments like Treasury, which has been slow to staff up under the Obama administration.

“We’re in the middle of a banking crisis, and Treasury still isn’t fully staffed. Clearly the administration has failed to put the necessary focus on filling key positions. Reforms that facilitate staffing up those critical positions may help prevent the current situation we’ve found ourselves in with Treasury,— said one Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Senate breakfast meetings are meant to be private.

As of Tuesday, Obama had sent 172 executive branch nominations to the Senate for confirmation, with 58 having been approved so far.

As part of their proposal, Senators will focus on paring the overall number of positions that require a Senate vote and on overhauling of the vetting process generally to reduce the amount of paperwork involved and number of questions that nominees must answer.

Collins said the reforms are long overdue. “We should have done it years ago, but previous efforts to reform the system just haven’t gotten very far,— she said, adding that “the reach is too deep in many of these departments.—

Collins said she and Lieberman were pleased with the reception that the proposal got during the breakfast, particularly from chairmen and ranking members, since “they’re the ones we’re going to have to convince.—

Although Alexander declined to comment, he argued in a March 9 floor speech that changes to the nomination process are needed and laid out a case for the broad outlines that the three lawmakers made during Tuesday’s breakfast.

Alexander argued that the nomination process has become problematic because of “the maze of investigations and forms that prospective senior officials must complete and the risk they run that they will be trapped and humiliated and disqualified by an unintentional and relatively harmless mistake.—

In his speech, Alexander also called on Lieberman and Collins to take up reforming the system by year’s end and urged them to put together a bipartisan team of lawmakers to draft a legislative remedy.

“I would also suggest that Sens. Lieberman and Collins assemble one of those gangs’ we occasionally have in the Senate — maybe a dozen more Senators equally divided among both parties, some from Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and some not — in order to limit the possibility that everyone will run away from the final recommendations because they fear that someone might think Senators are not interested in ethical and good government,— Alexander said.

While any Lieberman-Collins-Alexander proposal is designed to help speed up the process of filling vacancies in the executive branch, it would not apply to judicial nominations, nor would it likely help cut down on the kind of partisan fighting that has typically marked high-profile executive branch appointees.

Indeed, despite the fact that Republicans have not yet filibustered any of Obama’s nominees, the Senate has already seen some partisan sniping over his picks.

For instance, Republicans mounted a failed effort to gin up support for a short-term filibuster of now-Attorney General Eric Holder’s nomination earlier this year, a move that nevertheless resulted in some fireworks.

And on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) attacked Republicans for what he argued was a filibuster of Obama’s nomination of Chris Hill to become the next ambassador to Iraq.

“We’re not going to hold this up one minute,— Reid said. “It is just absolutely wrong that we have to do this. We cannot wait any longer for the civilian leadership in Iraq. Those who stand in the way should stand down so Ambassador Hill can get to work, so that the Senate can work on the important work of getting our economy back on track.—

But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) downplayed the opposition to the Hill nomination and said Tuesday that the process has worked at about the same clip as it has in the past.

“Gosh, I don’t think that the dispute over nominations is much of a dispute,— McConnell said. “I mean, in the Senate, we frequently have debate on nominations. We frequently have votes on them. We did back during the Bush administration. I don’t think it’s been any more common this year than it was, say, last year.—

Republicans, including conservatives off the Hill, have increasingly seen the filibuster as a bad political option for the GOP, particularly because it is likely that moderate Republicans will end up breaking ranks anyway.

“The word filibuster should not come out of the lips of Republican Senators … any idea of a filibuster is folly,— former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told the Republican National Lawyers Association last week.

Santorum, a who served in the GOP leadership during his Senate tenure that ended with his electoral defeat in 2006, argued that while he wanted to block as many of Obama’s judicial nominees as possible, filibusters are simply not a smart choice. He pointed to lawmakers like Collins and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who he said are unlikely to support conservatives’ efforts to block nominees to the federal judiciary.

“You don’t pull out a gun if everybody in the room knows it’s not loaded,— Santorum said.