Democrats' hopes to confirm Obama nominees limited

AP News
Posted: Nov 10, 2014 3:08 PM
Democrats' hopes to confirm Obama nominees limited

WASHINGTON (AP) — The push by President Barack Obama and his allies to fill judicial and agency vacancies is about to run head-on into limitations imposed by the calendar and the nation's voters.

More than 150 nominees are lined up for potential confirmation votes by the Democratic-run Senate during Congress' lame-duck session, which begins Wednesday and should last five weeks or less. With last Tuesday's elections giving Republicans Senate control of the new Congress that starts in January, Obama supporters hope the chamber will approve as many of his picks as possible while Democrats still control which votes will occur.

"McConnell and his caucus can force Democrats to take a lot of time to force nominations through," Michelle Schwartz, director of justice programs for the liberal group Alliance for Justice, said of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "But they cannot stop them."

Democrats hope a compromise with Republicans will ease the way for many Obama nominees during the lame duck, but it is unclear if such a deal is possible or how extensive it would be.

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 wants Obama's pick, federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch, to be approved without delay but would leave the timing to Senate leaders. Republicans say they want her nomination to be considered next year, when they are in charge.

The list of nominees awaiting Senate action — which will likely grow — includes 16 federal district court judgeships and 31 ambassadorships to countries ranging from Vietnam to the United Arab Emirates to the Bahamas. Also on tap are Obama's picks for surgeon general, a member of the National Labor Relations Board, the commissioner of the Social Security Administration and high-level jobs at the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

The nomination push by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will be constrained by his desire to also approve time-consuming 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. They did that after accusing Republicans of using extraordinary delays to derail Obama appointees, though Republicans said Democrats used similar tactics against past GOP presidents.

Thanks in part to that rules change, Obama has now appointed 276 federal circuit court of appeals and district court judges. That's more than the 252 appointed by President George W. Bush at the same point in his presidency, but less than President Bill Clinton's 298 and President Ronald Reagan's 290, according to Russell Wheeler, who studies the federal courts at the Brookings Institution.

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 week'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.