Obama nominees face lame duck obstacles in Senate
WASHINGTON (AP) -- So many nominees, so little time.
President Barack Obama and his allies have a parade of people they'd like the Senate to confirm for judgeships, ambassadorial posts and other top jobs during the dwindling days that Democrats will run the chamber.
But with Congress' post-election lame duck session likely to last five weeks or less, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., faces limits on how many posts he'll be able to fill before Republicans take over in January. That concerns Obama supporters, who want the president to staff his administration and continue filling the federal judiciary with lifetime judges his final two-plus years in office.
"I'd hope and expect Sen. Reid would move as aggressively as he can, given the limits of the lame duck session, to fill as many vacancies as possible," said Doug Kendall, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center.
With lawmakers returning Wednesday to the Capitol, the most anticipated nomination battle - over a replacement for departing Attorney General Eric Holder - may not occur until next year.
The White House has said it would like Obama's pick, federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch, to be approved "without delay" but would leave the timing to Senate leaders. Republicans who will control the chamber next year say they want her nomination to be considered then.
Even without that fight, the Senate calendar features over 150 nominees in line for possible consideration during the abbreviated session. That list will grow as Democratic-led committees hurriedly send more nominees to the full chamber.
The list includes 16 federal district court judgeships and 31 ambassadorships to countries ranging from Vietnam to the United Arab Emirates to the Bahamas. Others on tap include Obama's picks for surgeon general, a member of the National Labor Relations Board, commissioner of the Social Security Administration and high-level jobs at the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
Reid's nominations push will be constrained by his desire to also move important bills before Congress adjourns for the year.
These will likely include measures dealing with defense policy and renewing an expiring ban on state and local taxation of Internet access. Other bills would finance federal agencies through next September and renew popular tax breaks that have lapsed for businesses and individuals.
Complicating the task is Republican senators' continuing rage over Democrats' unilateral weakening of filibuster rules a year ago, ending the GOP's ability to block Obama's nominees. Ever since, Republicans have required Democrats to use the maximum time Senate rules require for most nominations, which range from two hours for federal district court judges to 30 hours for Cabinet-level appointees.
In a taste of what's to come, next year's Senate Judiciary Committee chairman - Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa - said Monday that he'll back "consensus nominees" but not blindly approve Obama selections.
"Lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary deserve scrutiny. The judiciary committee should not be a rubber stamp for the president," he said in a written statement.
Last November, Democrats used their majority muscle to reshape filibuster rules by requiring a simple majority - not 60 votes - to end the delays against most nominations. The 60-vote requirement remained in place for Supreme Court justices and for legislation.
They did that after accusing Republicans of using extraordinary delays to derail Obama appointees. Republicans said Democrats had used such tactics against GOP presidents in the past.
In just under a year since that rules change, Democrats have pushed 69 federal circuit and district court judges through the Senate. That compares to 36 judgeships approved in the first 11 months of 2013 before the filibuster was weakened and 49 in all of 2012.
Besides the 16 district court nominees awaiting full Senate action, there are 17 others at the Senate Judiciary Committee. Obama supporters hope many of those will win Senate approval.
None of Obama's nominees are household names.
His pick for surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, received attention months ago when the White House bent to political pressure and temporarily halted efforts to push him through the Senate.
Murthy, a Harvard Medical School physician, is a gun control supporter who was backed by medical groups but opposed by the National Rifle Association. At the time, the White House decided to avoid subjecting Democrats seeking re-election from Republican-heavy states to a difficult vote on Murthy.
As it turned out, two such senators were defeated in last Tuesday's election: Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark. The re-election race of Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, remains uncalled while Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., faces a runoff against GOP opponent Rep. Bill Cassidy.
Other appointments the Senate could consider before adjourning include:
- Sharon Block to return to the National Labor Relations Board, which decides labor disputes. Obama named her to the board in 2012, but the Supreme Court voided that in a case that found his use of recess appointments unconstitutional;
- Christopher Hart, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, to become chairman, and
- Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin to become commissioner.