The Senate took the rare step of curbing its own power Wednesday, voting to no longer require Senate confirmation for 169 high-level federal jobs filled through presidential appointments.
Most of those jobs are second-tier Cabinet positions such as assistant secretaries and deputy directors that typically don't inspire partisan wrangling. Nonetheless, the nominees often hang in limbo _ and the jobs go unfilled _ for months because their confirmations get drawn into other fights.
The bill, passed 79-20 and sent to the House, is part of a broader bipartisan effort to make the famously fickle Senate work more efficiently.
"There is nothing wrong with the Senate doing a little prioritizing of pending business," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a co-sponsor of the legislation with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Critics said the bill only puts a bandage on the bigger problem of a mammoth government that should, itself, be trimmed.
"We're moving to make it somewhat less accountable," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
The Constitution gives the Senate the power to confirm nominees. The bill would remove the confirmation requirement for 169 of some 1,200 senior executive branch jobs filled by presidential appointments. Candidates for the confirmation-exempted jobs would still have to go through the same time-consuming background checks and complete financial disclosures for the White House vetting process, but no longer have to repeat the drill for the Senate, according to officials of both parties.
The Senate also voted 89-8 to pass a separate resolution that does not need House approval to streamline appointments for more than 250 part-time positions, such as seats on advisory boards.
The bill progressed Wednesday against a backdrop of calls from some Democrats for more sweeping changes in the Senate's filibuster rules, which allow the minority party _ Republicans now _ to slow or defeat nominations without an up-or-down vote.
Leaders of the two parties struck a "gentleman's agreement" when the Senate convened earlier this year to reduce impediments that had brought the chamber to a near-standstill. Democrats agreed to let Republicans offer more amendments in exchange for a GOP promise to conduct fewer filibusters.
The number of federal jobs requiring Senate confirmation has risen from 365 during the Kennedy administration, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most of the increase can be attributed to the creation of new departments and agencies, included the Transportation, Energy, Education and Homeland Security Departments, CRS said.
The FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Office of Government Ethics and agency ethics officials, in addition to the president's immediate staff, are involved looking into job candidates' background.
The Senate's vetting process is far less systemized and more prone to holdups. Nominees can float in limbo for months, often because of extensive records searches, and expensive legal advice is sometimes required. The bill's advocates say the wait and potential expense often discourage potential candidates from accepting top federal jobs and impair the government's ability to draw talent from the more lucrative private sector.