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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.

By Paul Volpe  |  January 2, 2009; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Branch vs. Branch , Senate  
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Next: Burris Will Press To Be Seated in Senate


The Borgen Project has some good info on the cost of addressing global poverty.
$30 billion: Annual shortfall to end world hunger.

$550 billion: U.S. Defense budget.

Posted by: allie11 | January 2, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Kinda makes ya real proud of your congress, huh? I'm sure the next one will hit the ground running. LOL

Posted by: gwalter1 | January 2, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Love them automated spellcheckers:
"A clerk reads allowed a resolution allowing for the senator to serve in Byrd's place."

No, a clerk reads ALOUD a resolution...

C'mon, this is the f'ing POST, fer crissakes!!!

Posted by: KWillis | January 2, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Thank God, this is over. When Congress returns it will have to deal with these Republicans who are dedicated to seeing Obama and the Democrats fail, no matter the country is in deep trouble.
Republicans have shown their true colors and they are NOT red, white and blue. They are only red.

Posted by: cms1 | January 2, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Pro-forma sessions are a joke and a waste of the taxpayer's money. It shows the animous that has been present on The Hill and why things can't be accomplished in a timely manner.

Since setting-up the next session of Congress and pushing a bill to give Las Vegas with a BILLION dollars for new transportation projects (more pork than at a Farmer John weenie roast) Sen. Reid is a short-timer and the handwriting is on the wall. He's gone in two years and I'll be at Union Station waving and saying "Happy Trails and good luck in Searchlight, NV!!!"

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | January 2, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Why do we pay these idiots? It is more aparent every day our system of govermnet has failed.
None= not even one- of these clowns take the job we pay them for seriously.

Posted by: UnitedStatesofAmerica | January 2, 2009 11:49 PM | Report abuse

No posts from Dec 17 to Jan 1, inclusive. I had just about given up on you folks.

Posted by: commentator_3 | January 3, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Animous? Govermnet? Can't anybody spell here? Fellow conservatives, you look like idiots.

Posted by: Rightist | January 3, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

They don't have to misspell words to look like idiots - after all they are conservative Republicans.

Enough said.


Posted by: swanieaz | January 5, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Congress would get more done if they didn't have to spend 1/3 of the time fund raising. Google Common Cause and read for yourself. They would be relieved to have the time to do the work they're hired for but senators need to raise $1000 every day to get re-elected. We have a lousy system here. Let them run for say 3 months, public campaign financing ONLY, and that's that. Then they go to work for us, not for special interests like they do now.

Anybody have any ideas how to get them to understand their priorities are off base? They work for the country and the bitter partisanship we've seen for a couple of decades now is ruinous.

No, I take that back. The Dems were total wimps the past 8 years, we've had entirely too much BI-partisanship. The Republicans are already showing they will not reciprocate, no matter what desperate shape the country is in. Let more banks fold, more businesses file for bankruptcy, more people lose their jobs and homes, "WE must have plenty of public debate and there will be NO quick action on the new president's stimulus package.

$350 Billion is gone and nobody knows where. Did Congress do anything about it? No, but they'll make Obama pay for it and worse, the country will end up paying over and over.

Posted by: tortoise17 | January 5, 2009 8:45 PM | Report abuse

On March 12, 2008, recess appointment procedures were outlined in a CRS. An Intrasession Recess occurs during a session of Congress. An Intersession Recess occurs twice....

The time between the end of the first session and the beginning of the second session, and

The time between the second session of one Congress and the first session of a new Congress.

It seems like the CRS and this story are talking about two different procedures.

Posted by: sterlingdem | January 6, 2009 3:13 AM | Report abuse

As much as I am appalled as much (as many of the posters on this forum are) about the waste of taxpayer money for these "parliamentary procedures" in Congress, I am loathe to be too critical. One needs only to read Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler) to understand why some of this "waste" is absolutely a necessity. When I see and hear so much outrage, I am tempted, as much as any other, to join right in, but my more rational thoughts generally kick in and I think better of it. To all of those real angry posters cursing Congress; I urge you to consider what we would have if we didn't have it. My only real beef with the last Congress is that they DIDN'T stand up and do their duty of being a proper check against the Bush administration. However, be careful of what you wish for you just might get it!

Posted by: nwsjnky1 | January 7, 2009 2:04 AM | Report abuse

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