Senate Adjourns, Ends Standoff With Bush
By Paul Kane
In less than 30 seconds this morning, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) gaveled to a close a 14-month standoff between Senate Democrats and President Bush, effectively ending the contentious 110th Congress and also blocking any last-minute appointments by the White House.
At 10 a.m. ET sharp, Bingaman oversaw the last of the pro forma sessions of the Senate, an open-and-shut day in which just one senator gavels the chamber into session and almost immediately gavels it shut. So long as these occur every fourth day, the Senate has technically not gone into an extended recess, forbidding the president from making interim appointments to the cabinet, judiciary and the sprawling network of bipartisan commissions that oversee domestic industries.
It also served as the last act of the Senate in this Congress, with the House coming in tomorrow for similar non-legislative activity to close down the session. Both chambers will reconvene at noon Tuesday to kick off the 111th Congress with the swearing-in of the entire House and those senators that won election or reelection in 2008.
Among the many standoffs between congressional Democrats and Bush, the issue of interim appointments was one -- possibly the only one -- where Democrats truly had the upper hand under the Constitution.
Earlier this decade, annoyed that Senate Democrats were stalling his nominees to the appeals courts, Bush used his so-called recess appointment authority to name controversial selections such as Charles Pickering and William Pryor to the federal bench when Congress was on one of its many breaks. Such appointees get to serve out the remainder of the year in which they were appointed and until the end of the congressional session the following year.
By 2007, with Democrats in charge, the nomination standoff had shifted to the bipartisan commissions, such as the Federal Communications Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission. Traditionally, the president, with help from his party, selects half the members of those commissions, as well as the chairman, and the party out of power sends their picks to the president for the minority slots on the FCC and SEC.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) accused Bush of slow-walking the Democratic picks for those commissions. In addition, Democrats grew fearful that Bush would use recess appointments to install nominees that Democrats had been rejecting for confirmation. So for a two-week break around Thanksgiving 2007, Reid ordered up the pro forma sessions, calling on Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who lives closest to the Capitol, to oversee the sessions.
But the nomination standoff only grew from there, covering the Christmas 2007 season. By early last year, Reid and Bush had so dug in their heels, that the unusual pro forma sessions became commonplace over the more than half dozen recesses Congress took.
These sessions have become something of an inside joke among senators, staff and security, who -- by rule -- must treat them as if it were just like any other session of the Senate. Men must wear suit coats and ties, all staff must be dressed appropriately, Capitol Police standing guard outside the chamber dress in jacket-and-tie. After presiding several times Webb got his part of the session down pat to under 10 seconds.
Chad Pergram, a producer for Fox News who monitored several of these sessions, reported this week that the most regal of pro forma presiders was, not surprisingly, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), the 91-year-old who is the longest serving senator in history. Unlike most Democrats, who rushed through the proceedings, Byrd walked through the motions in deliberate form, as if he were presiding over important legislative matters.
Dozens of Senate Democrats have now presided, from freshmen such as Webb to elder statesmen such as Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
By agreement with Republicans, no legislative business is undertaken. One senator sits in the seat of the president pro tempore, a title Byrd holds, and gavels open the session. A clerk reads allowed a resolution allowing for the senator to serve in Byrd's place. And then the senator reads the same line: "Under the previous order, the Senate stands in recess until" whatever the date of the next session is.
Heading into today's session, Bingaman joked that he had agreed weeks ago to oversee the last moments of the 110th Congress, when he thought he'd be free. As the day approached and he realized it was the holiday season, Bingaman confessed, "I wonder why I agreed to do this."
Bingaman predicted he wouldn't be "setting any records" with this session. And, like many other senators, Bingaman performed his duties in 27 seconds, what has become the standard amount of time for pro forma sessions, according to Pergram.
Three tourists were in the chamber, with more than a dozen aides on hand and C-SPAN cameras rolling. As the gavel sounded, staff broke into cheers and made jokes about drinking champagne to celebrate the end of the Congress.
And a constitutional showdown with an unpopular president ended.
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