Dick Durbin: Let my nominees go!
The Senate confirmation process has bogged down. Sometimes, the delay is public, as when Richard Shelby placed a hold on all nominees. Sometimes, the delay is opaque, as in the case of secret holds. But the outcome has been a dysfunctional process where 100 executive branch nominees have now cleared their committees but are awaiting confirmation. At this point in George W. Bush's presidency, there were 20 nominees awaiting confirmation. Earlier today, I spoke with Majority Whip Dick Durbin about the issue. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Congratulations are in order. The Senate is about to pass 100 stalled nominations. That's quite a milestone.
Yes, I'm afraid that's so. We're at 96 or 97 or so.
How does this work? What is stopping the Democrats from simply bringing these nominees up for a vote?
Under the ordinary course of things, with the exception of controversial nominees, the nominees would be packaged and moved through in groups. The really controversial ones get their own vote on the floor. But with the Republicans being unwilling to move them through, they stack up on the calendar. So each one has to be like a bill. That means you have to move to proceed, which is a debatable motion, which means you need to file cloture, which means waiting two days for the cloture vote, and then 30 hours after the cloture vote, to move the nomination. And you'd have to do that with each one.
You say the Republicans, but a lot of these nominees actually attract substantial Republican support when they're on the floor. Lael Brainard, the long-delayed undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs, got 72 votes. Isn't a lot of this just individual senators holding up the process in order to gain leverage on other issues?
I'm just going to go out on a limb and say it is an organized party strategy. It's not one nominee or even a handful. It's almost 100 on the calendar. George W. Bush was at 20 at this point in his presidency. And these are nominees who have already cleared a committee vote, often unanimously. The subplot is that Republicans think if they hold up the nominees they're stacking up bargaining chips and they're hurting Barack Obama.
How does it hurt Obama?
It stops him because he can't fill his government with the nominees he needs or fill the vacancies on the bench that he is supposed to fill.
So the idea is that blocking these nominees makes government work poorly and then the Republicans can run against this poorly functioning government?
And many of these holds are secret. How does that even work? Let's say you want to put a secret hold on someone. Who do you talk to?
The only person who knows if I have a secret hold on someone is one staff member in the cloakroom. The only way you can figure it out is the process of elimination. You try to figure out who are the most likely Republicans to have placed the hold and you ask them. And some will deny it. And eventually, you're down to two or three and you try to figure it out. Now, we thought we changed it in the first bill we passed in this Congress. But they're ignoring it.
How can senators ignore a rule change they voted for?
It is a rule, but it doesn't carry any time in prison. We thought once we established it they would agree to live by it. But only Tom Coburn has done that.
So then what do you do? It seems like there are two problems. First, that the Senate considers so many nominees. And second, that it's so easy to impede the Senate's business.
At this point, any change in the rules would require at least 60 or 67 votes at a time when you have 59 Democrats. Bringing one Republican or even eight Republicans over to a rules change is difficult. What we hope is that when the public understands that Republicans are using and defending secret holds, their outrage will end the practice.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta.
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