Reid Says Ethics Should Investigate Senators Who Don’t Come Clean on Secret Holds

Posted May 4, 2010 at 4:16pm

Updated: 5:39 p.m.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday suggested that Senators who do not comply with rules regarding secret holds should be referred to the Senate Ethics Committee.

Senate Democrats have recently attempted to trigger a rarely used rule that would force Senators who have anonymously objected to a nomination or bill to identify themselves in the Congressional Record six days after the bill or nomination is blocked from coming to the floor.

“I think that we have to have a little more clout in what happens — maybe referral to the Ethics Committee,” Reid told reporters.

Democrats, led by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), nearly two weeks ago attempted to call up scores of blocked nominations in the hopes of triggering the rule, but Republicans reported no names in the Congressional Record when the rule ripened on Friday. Democrats have cried foul.

“There are scores and scores of Republican holds. They have been asked to follow the law and they refuse to do so. The law is after a set number of days, they’re supposed to state in the Congressional Record why they have the holds. They refuse to do that,” Reid said.

Reid noted that there are no current Democratic holds on nominations.

McCaskill said she was “surprised” that with all the holds on nominees, no Republicans complied with the rule.

“I frankly didn’t think we’d get all of them, but I thought we’d get some of them,” she said. “I was shocked there was no disclosure in the Congressional Record on Friday, which means they have taken the position that we don’t have to follow this rule. That this rule does not mean anything to us.”

A loophole in the 2007 rule that forces disclosure would allow a handful of Senators to switch off blocking on a nominee or bill to get around the rule. It was unclear if that is how Republicans avoided announcing their holds or if they simply ignored it as Democrats allege. A hold is generally considered a threat to filibuster or to at least be notified when an issue or nominee is brought to the floor. In practice, it prevents the Senate from obtaining unanimous consent to bring up the issue.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he did not have any information on the reporting requirement or the GOP’s compliance with the rule.

“We’ve always had a challenging environment in the Senate with regard to the confirmation of executive branch appointments. This administration’s been treated about the same as previous administrations in terms of the pace of confirmations,” McConnell said. “As to the issue of how we deal with confirmations here in the Senate and individual Senators’ rights, that’s a matter that’s always under discussion no matter who’s in the majority and I don’t have any additional information to give you today on that subject.”

Despite Reid’s suggestion Tuesday, it remains to be seen whether the Ethics Committee would investigate the holds after it rejected a government watchdog group’s request to do so in April.

In an April letter to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the panel stated it is not responsible for probing potential procedural violations.

“We are unaware of any precedent whereby the Committee has investigated, or recommended ‘discipline,’ based on an alleged violation of a Senate procedural rule, let alone a directive,” Ethics Staff Director and Chief Counsel John Sassaman wrote in that letter.

Sassaman also stated that investigating such allegations could turn the ethics panel into a “policing agency for alleged departures from Senate parliamentary procedure.”

The Senate sought to curb the use of holds in 2007 as part of reform included in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, but it did not include an enforcement mechanism or establish a new Senate rule barring the practice.