By Stephen Dinan
The Washington Times
Sunday, December 22, 2013
Democrats may have changed the rules on filibusters, but far from ending the intense battle over President Obama's nominations, the move has pushed Republicans to fight harder — and to pioneer other tactics.
The latest move was made late Friday, just as the Senate was preparing to adjourn for a two-week recess. Republicans refused to allow a courtesy request to keep the full slate of Obama nominees pending. As a result, the nomination process must restart early next year.
It was a capstone of a year in which a deal on filibusters frayed and finally collapsed, leaving the Senate atmosphere more poisoned than it has been in generations.
Restarting the nomination process is a small procedural hurdle, but it's the latest sign that Republicans intend for Democrats to feel the pain from using the "nuclear option" in November to change the filibuster rules.
"The normal way the Senate has operated for a couple hundred years has been destroyed this year, and to ask that normalcy come about now is just beyond the pale," Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said as he delivered the parliamentary blow that forced dozens of nominations to be killed for lack of action.
Republicans did confirm a number of military nominations but blocked all pending judicial, ambassadorial and civilian Cabinet posts.
Such action is by no means unprecedented. Indeed, Senate rules state that if the chamber adjourns for the end of a session, any of the president's nominations that haven't reached at least the floor will be sent back to the White House.
That rule has been waived occasionally as a courtesy, but Republicans said there is little room for courtesy after Democrats changed the rules and made it possible to end filibusters of nominees with just a majority vote rather than the 60-vote standard that prevailed for decades.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, led the floor Friday because Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, was hospitalized.
"Unfortunately, it appears we're going to stay in that state for at least a short period of time," Mr. Durbin said, adding that he hoped Republicans would get over their anger.
The filibuster rules have been in effect for about a month, and Democrats have made exceptional use of them. They have added three judges to the powerful federal appeals court that sits in Washington, and on Friday confirmed a new Internal Revenue Service chief and a new deputy secretary for the Homeland Security Department.
Alejandro Mayorkas was confirmed to the Homeland Security post despite being under an active inspector general's investigation over suspicions that he abused his authority as head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Since Democrats used the nuclear option — a move that involved breaking Senate precedents by a majority vote rather than the two-thirds it usually takes to change the chamber's rules — Republicans have been making life difficult for Democrats.
They have halted some committee meetings and forced the Senate to use all of the time allotted for each nomination, which has meant 24-hour-a-day sessions and an exhausting pace — which Senate aides speculated Friday could have contributed to the exhaustion that landed Mr. Reid in the hospital.
Judicial nominations are a major part of the fight, and Democrats late last week accused Republicans of boycotting committee meetings to try to delay some of Mr. Obama's judicial picks.
Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said he is considering changing Judiciary Committee rules to circumvent Republican opposition.
"If this obstruction continues with respect to judicial nominees, I will be forced to reconsider long-held policies that have upheld the rights of the minority party in this process," Mr. Leahy said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Democrats shouldn't be surprised.
"The fact of the matter is that given the atmosphere the Democrats created by invoking the nuclear option, nominations are going to be given added scrutiny," he said.
Each side marshals statistics. Democrats point to the number of vacancies, and Republicans say they have allowed more than twice as many judicial picks to be confirmed during Mr. Obama's fifth year in office than minority Democrats allowed during President George W. Bush's fifth year.
In the case of the Mayorkas nomination at Homeland Security, Republicans said it's the first time the Senate has knowingly confirmed such a high official who is under investigation. They said it's another ignominious precedent for Mr. Reid, the driving force behind Mr. Mayorkas' confirmation.
Mr. Reid questioned the inspector general's credibility, and the chief of the inspector general's office resigned just days before the vote to avoid congressional scrutiny and added drama.
"This is all kind of inside-Washington politics," Mr. Reid said in dismissing the investigation.
The vote was along party lines, 54-41, signaling that Mr. Mayorkas wouldn't have been cleared if the old filibuster rules were in place.
Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told colleagues he was stunned that Democrats were going ahead with the vote.
He said analysts who researched the record couldn't find any instances in which a nominee under active investigation had been confirmed.
"It's never been done before," he said.
Mr. Coburn said if the review, which he said could take a few more months, cleared Mr. Mayorkas, then he should be confirmed easily.
The senator from Oklahoma also said Mr. Obama was being hypocritical by continuing to push Mr. Mayorkas' nomination. When Mr. Obama was in the Senate, Mr. Coburn said, he objected to moving ahead with one of Mr. Bush's nominees who was under investigation.