Terror Plot, Oil Spill Fail to Unlock Nominees

Posted May 5, 2010 at 6:36pm

The failed Times Square terror plot and massive Gulf Coast oil spill have given critics of the Senate hold new ammunition as they complain of a growing list of key vacancies, including the top post at the Transportation Security Administration.

“Clearly it is not only this process that’s broken, but the abuse of the filibuster has brought the Senate to a new low in terms of minority procedures,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, pointing to the critical vacancy.

The TSA slot has been without a nominee for months. Two nominees withdrew from consideration — due in no small part, some lawmakers say, to the frustrating nomination process. Meanwhile, the nominee for another key vacancy — inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency — has been pending since March.

As the list of legislative priorities backs up and the electoral outlook for the majority party looks increasingly worrisome, Democratic Senators maintain there is an opportunity in an under-the-Dome fight over stalled nominees. In particular, they point to vacant posts in the Homeland Security, Justice and Energy departments as cause for concern in the wake of the serious events in New York and the Gulf Coast.

Durbin said the chamber should do away with the tradition of allowing a single Senator to secretly hold up a nomination.

“It’s a small step but an important one in the right direction,” Durbin said. “I think we ought to get rid of this as an institution that goes to the ‘old boys’ club’ mentality around here.”

Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said the slow and often highly political process of clearing nominees led to the derailment of both of President Barack Obama’s TSA nominees.

“I just assume they can’t get anybody to sign up for it considering what’s happened to the last two,” said Rockefeller, whose panel has jurisdiction over the TSA nomination. “It’s frustrating. It’s just frustrating.”

To be sure, those two TSA nominees were controversial — Erroll Southers for comments regarding union organizing and retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding because of his previous work as a defense contractor. But Harding withdrew from consideration on March 27, and the agency remains without a leader as stricter no-fly rules are being enforced in the wake of the thwarted New York City terrorism attempt.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) filed an amendment to the financial reform bill that would end the practice of secret holds, and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has persuaded 51 Democratic colleagues to shun the use of secret holds, a tactic that she has decried as “a luxury” of the Senate.

So far, no Republican has joined McCaskill’s pledge, but some say they are considering it.

“I’d be glad to look at it,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said, adding that he typically publicizes his holds on nominations and legislation.

Durbin said time constraints might keep the Wyden-Grassley amendment from getting a floor vote, which he acknowledged was a hurdle in addressing the issue.

“Well that’s exactly what Republicans are counting on. Because we have other issues to worry about, they assume we’ll just let them pile up on the calendar,” Durbin said. “But as I’ve said, the president needs the people he needs to do his job.”

It’s a mantra that Democrats have repeated much of the year and will continue throughout the summer as the Senate considers Obama’s second Supreme Court nominee.

Members of both parties often hold up a nominee for leverage on an unrelated issue, whether it’s to get a meeting with administration officials, demand action on a separate bill or get funding for a home-state project.

The process irks some Senate veterans and newcomers alike. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), angered by the 20 judicial nominees pending on the calendar, makes regular Senate floor appearances to bemoan the confirmation process. And freshman Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has grown disenchanted while watching nominees such as Virginia native and now-4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Barbara Keenan wait for more than four months before being confirmed by wide margins.

“Most of them are very strong choices with bipartisan support, and now they’re pawns in this game,” Durbin said.

There are 92 names pending on the Senate calendar, including high-ranking nominees to the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Aviation Administration. Democrats regularly complain about the long backlog, but with the developments in the Gulf Coast and New York City as stark backdrops, they plan to boost their floor presence on the issue this week.

McCaskill tried to call out the names of Members maintaining secret holds for longer than the six days allotted under Senate rules adopted in 2007, but so far only Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has come forward to claim a hold. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that the Ethics Committee should review the issue, but the panel’s appetite for doing so is unclear; it rejected a government watchdog group’s request to do so in April.