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The Senate becomes a little more broken

Last night, the Senate managed to confirm 54 of President Obama's nominees, including two of his three picks for the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors. Guess they weren't that controversial after all. But McConnell got something out of the deal, too: A promise that the Senate would be kept in pro forma sessions over the next six weeks so that the president can't use the Senate's recess to make any recess appointments.

McConnell had two chips here. The first was that Harry Reid needed him to move the non-controversial nominees. The second was that McConnell could send nominees back to the White House, which is a sort of odd rule that allows the minority leader to force the White House to begin the confirmation process from the beginning.

The most immediate casualty is Jack Lew, Obama's choice for OMB director. Lew has passed his two committees with large, bipartisan majorities. He's being held by Mary Landrieu, who admits that her hold is about the White House's moratorium on offshore drilling, not about Lew, who she says “clearly possesses the expertise necessary to serve as one of the President's most important economic advisors.” With the Senate in fake session over the next six weeks, Lew can't be recess appointed, so OMB will be without its director even as the government begins working on the 2012 budget. The people I've talked with are shocked that this is actually going to happen.

But beyond Lew, I'd bet we're also seeing a new norm emerge. Now that McConnell has discovered a way to leverage his power over non-controversial appointees to end the president's ability to make recess appointments, there's little doubt that he'll use it again, or that the Democrats will use it when the Republicans are in control. And so the already broken process for nominations becomes that much more broken.

By Ezra Klein  | September 30, 2010; 10:51 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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It is very cute Ezra, that you do not bother to inform your readers that it was one Harry Reid who began this practice back in 2007 to prevent any recess appointments from President Bush. What's good for the goose...

Posted by: JackIL08 | September 30, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Jack Law for OMB - I am sure Reid and WH both know about this and they still backed the deal with McConnell. What does it mean?

It means in 112 Congress it is going to be all brawl about the budget such that, that whole exercise of budget (along with Obama's State of Union address in 2011) is meaningless! Everyone knows now....

So welcome to the dysfunctional politics of 112 Congress from birth...

Posted by: umesh409 | September 30, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Harry Reid has used similar pro-forma Senate sessions to block confirmation of Presidential nominations. Using the tactic is as much McConnell's right as it was Reid's: the practice is necessary to assure that Congress truly has control over the government and that the President is simply an executive following the mandates of the duly elected legislature.

Posted by: rmgregory | September 30, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

McConnell is one of the smartest parliamentarians to come down the pike in a long, long time. Sometimes it seems he's playing chess to Reid's checkers.

Posted by: Jasper999 | September 30, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I also meant to say: if outrages like this don't prompt the Democrats to gut/reform/eliminate the various minoritarian obstruction rules at the commencement of the next congress (if, as seems likely, they hold on to a majority), they'll frankly DESERVE the misery they'll suffer the next two years. I mean, enough is enough.

Posted by: Jasper999 | September 30, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

"Broken" is a child's word. Have you seen a toddler wave something in the air, something that doesn't do what he wants right away, and howl that it's "broken"? Adults expect that there will be opposition to a far reaching, fast moving agenda. But the way you describe things is part of the attempted infantilization of public discourse. As in, "So me and Patty and a bunch of other people were tryin' to get the car out of the ditch..." (the words of the president -- and some call his speech too academic!)

Posted by: truck1 | September 30, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

truck1, the word "broken" is not inherently infantile, nor is Ezra's usage. Something is broken if some change has occurred which no longer allows the thing to function as designed. The Senate is not supposed to be a place where the minority can completely obstruct all but once-in-a-generation majorities. The majority shouldn't be able to rush into office and pass a raft of legislation without debating the issue, but the minority shouldn't be able to grind the body to a halt for their own political gain either.

Elections have consequences. Senate rules which restrict a once-in-a-lifetime majority as they have in the last two years break that body.

Posted by: MosBen | September 30, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Has a Republican Congress EVER agreed to stay pro forma in session so that a Republican President's hands would be tied and he would thereby be prevented from making a recess appointment of some Troglodyte nominee like John Bolton? What the H - E - Double - Hockey - Sticks is going on here? Why do the Democrats cave time and again to the despicable Republicans? I just don't get it, at all. I would think that Obama would have been chomping at the bit to give Elizabeth Warren a recess appointment. Instead, he caves and trundles her off to some make-work position where they can control her and her probable options will be oblivion, anonymity, or resignation. Once again, I don't get it.

Posted by: ejs2 | September 30, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Last I checked, Mary Landrieu was a Democrat. I would submit that the hold up on Jack Lew is Harry Reid's problem, not Mitch McConnell's.

I don't see how you can construe the confirmation of 54 of Obama's nominees as additional evidence that the Senate is "broken".

Also, to the best of my knowledge, the House and the Senate, both controlled by Democrats have not passed a budget resolution or any of the annual appropriation bills for this year.

If we are going to run the government by continuing resolution anyway, who cares if we have an OMB Director?

Lastly, I would submit that the recess appointment is just as much an anachronism as the filibuster, and that any serious "reform" of the Senate would eliminate both. This would presumably require a Constitutional Amendment.

Posted by: jnc4p | September 30, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

P.S. You also conveniently gloss over what role the recess appointment of Donald Berwick may have had in this, given that no hearings were held or even scheduled for his nomination.

P.P.S. I'm sure the next step will be to have an OMB "Czar" with all the powers of the Director, but without having to be appointed.

Posted by: jnc4p | September 30, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

"With the Senate in fake session over the next six weeks, Lew can't be recess appointed, so OMB will be without its director even as the government begins working on the 2012 budget."

The 2012 budget? Congressional Democrats haven't even started doing anything with the 2011 budget, and Klein's worried about 2012?


"P.S. You also conveniently gloss over what role the recess appointment of Donald Berwick may have had in this, given that no hearings were held or even scheduled for his nomination."

Absolutely correct. Add that Democrats weren't thrilled with that recess appointment at all.

Posted by: steve_tsouloufis | September 30, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I have to give Obama credit where credit is due. He is an absolutely brilliant spin doctor! He can take any issue he wants and spin it in a way to make it look like he is doing something to help, all the while achieving his goal to redistribute American wealth to the rest of the world. Most importantly, he seems to be able to make Americans (especially congress) believe his rhetoric and follow his goals. If America doesn’t wake up to the lies, we will soon find ourselves in a situation far worse than anything we have seen so far. WAKE UP AMERICA!

Posted by: jblow50 | September 30, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

What utter hypocrisy. Has anyone looked at the nomination process in 2007/2008?

Posted by: krazen1211 | September 30, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

All told, getting 54 appointees thru before recess was an achievement, w/this obstructionist GOP. You're one of the few 'reporters' who included this vital tidbit, Ezra. Thank you.

But, yet again, the 'professional left' will complain about the 56 who didn't get thru, and the teabaggers will crow 'Victory!' as the multinational-corporation-led Tea Party leads them off the cliff.

Posted by: VCubed | October 1, 2010 6:40 AM | Report abuse

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