Senators Won’t Fold on the Hold

Posted January 29, 2010 at 6:01pm

President Barack Obama may be facing an uphill battle trying to inspire bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, but Senators in both parties seem willing to agree on one thing: Most have no interest in heeding the president’s call to end the practice of putting holds on executive branch nominees.

Indeed, while Democrats and Republicans alike said the Senate — and the White House — could do a better job of processing Obama’s nominees, they bristled at the notion that they should abandon their ability to put holds on — or block — his picks.

Obama appealed to the Senate in Wednesday’s State of the Union address to drop the practice. Dozens of his executive branch selections have been the subject of Senator holds.

“The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual Senators,— Obama said last week. “Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game. But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government.—

Obama’s ask did draw some support from Senate Democrats.

“I stood right up [during the speech] because I think that’s the thing that people are fed up with,— freshman Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said. “If you don’t like someone, then vote against them and quit playing these games. I have a U.S. marshal that’s held up right now. He is valuable. We need him. And I think what [Obama] said right there was calling everybody out.—

But by and large, Senators from both parties were dismissive of Obama’s request. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who voted for Obama’s choice of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, said he finds some irony in Obama’s appeal. Graham argued that when Obama was a Senator, he opposed his fair share of then-President George W. Bush’s nominees: “This is the guy who filibustered judges. It doesn’t resonate strongly with me.—

“When he was here, he didn’t do anything [to help]. … His legislative history is one that he doesn’t have much room to preach,— Graham said.

Moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) added, “I wouldn’t want to relinquish that authority completely because it’s a good check and balance on the executive branch.—

Likewise, when asked Wednesday night whether Senators should abandon the practice altogether, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said, “I don’t know about that.—

Although not a formal rule of the Senate, lawmakers are able to place anonymous holds on nominations to stall floor consideration.

Several Senators noted that holds can be an effective tool for extracting valuable information or securing promises about future actions.

“Sometimes there are holds for legitimate reasons,— Snowe said, noting that “I did that recently … and then I released the hold— on the unidentified nominee after she had gained an explanation of a policy that she was concerned with.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) can in theory overrule any hold by filing cloture on a nomination, assuming he can muster the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster. However, the process of invoking cloture can tie up the Senate floor for days, and Reid has been reluctant to use that tactic too often.

Over the past several years, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have unsuccessfully pushed legislation to end the use of holds to block nominations. And it’s not uncommon for Members of either party to rail against the practice when the White House is controlled by the opposing party: Republicans used Democrats’ blockade of Bush’s judicial nominees to rally their base during the 2004 election.

Begich argued the time has come to reform the practice. “I think the American people are fed up with it, so I am very happy [Obama] said it and I jumped to the gun right when he said it,— Begich said. “I think that’s the problem. More people should stand up on this issue and say we’re done with these games. If you don’t like the person they’re appointing, then vote no. Stand up for what you believe in and quit playing parliamentary games and making backroom deals.—

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.