WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans blocked immediate approval of a mountain of mostly minor nominations by President Barack Obama late Monday in the aftermath of last month’s Democratic move weakening the minority party’s traditional ability to block most presidential appointments.
The action demonstrated that the GOP was intent on exacting a price for the changes majority Democrats muscled through the Senate in filibusters, or procedural delays minority senators can use to delay or kill nominations or bills.
Since last month’s changes mean that Democrats can win approval of Obama’s picks without GOP votes, Monday’s blockage does not imperil any of the nominations.
Included in the stack of 76 nominations was that of Janet Yellen, who Obama wants to head the Federal Reserve. Her Senate confirmation is still considered a virtual certainty.
Monday’s confrontation came as the Senate returned to work for the first time since Democrats made those changes on Nov. 21.
That Democratic move had angered Republicans, both because it weakened the GOP’s ability to wage filibusters and because Democrats made the change with a simple majority of votes. Republicans said Democrats should have been required to win a two-thirds majority to make the change, which is more commonly used to make major rules changes.
On Monday, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., objected to a request by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for unanimous approval of the 76 nominees. Most were minor, though, besides Yellen the list includes Jeh Johnson to head the Department of Homeland Security and Deborah Lee James, Obama’s choice to be secretary of the Air Force.
“Until I understand better how a United States senator is supposed to operate in a Senate without rules, I object,” Alexander said.
Most of the nominees were for mid- and lower level posts like ambassadors and federal judges. Others included posts like an undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and a pick for the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
The quick approval for those nominees that Reid was seeking required the consent of all senators, so Alexander’s objection was enough to stop them – for now.
The dispute came to a head last month after Republican blocked Obama picks for three vacancies for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Those nominees were not included in the group blocked Monday.
That court is extremely powerful because it rules on administration actions. Its eight judges currently are divided evenly between those picked by past Democratic and GOP presidents.
When Alexander likened GOP objections to Democratic actions against judges chosen by GOP President George W. Bush, Reid said, “That explanation is as flat as a bottle of beer open for six months.”
The changes Democrats made allow filibusters to be ended by a simple majority of senators, not the 60 votes required since 1975. The new lower threshold applies to nearly all nominations but does not affect nominated Supreme Court justices or legislation.
Reid also set in motion votes to end filibusters against Johnson and nine minor nominees.
On Tuesday, the Senate is scheduled to vote to confirm Patricia Millett to become a judge on the D.C. circuit court. A vote had been planned for Monday but was postponed because winter weather was making travel difficult.
Millett is a prominent private lawyer who worked in the solicitor general’s office under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, arguing 32 cases before the Supreme Court. Republicans used the old 60-vote requirement for stopping filibusters to prevent a vote on her nomination in October, a blockade that helped prompt Democrats to force the changes.
Over the next two weeks, Reid plans to push five more major nominees through the Senate.
They include Yellen at the Fed, Johnson for Homeland Security and Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
There are also two more Obama picks for the remaining vacancies on the D.C. court — attorney Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins.
There is little doubt all five will be approved. But time-consuming GOP delays are possible, especially against Watt.
Some Republicans say he is not qualified to run an agency that oversees federally backed home lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Democrats say Democrats say Watt, a 21-year veteran of the House Financial Services Committee, is well suited for the job and say Republicans consider him too liberal.
Despite last month’s Democratic power play, Senate Republicans retain the power to slow, though not derail, Obama’s appointments.
Left unchanged were other rules that the out-of-power party could use to grind the chamber’s work to an excruciating crawl. That ranges from requiring clerks to read voluminous bills and amendments to forcing repeated procedural votes.