This Is What a Post-Nuclear Senate Looks Like

With 13 nominees confirmed in the past seven days alone, the Senate confirmation logjam is finally breaking.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at the Capitol.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Dec. 17, 2013, 7:32 a.m.

Since the Sen­ate re­turned from re­cess sev­en days ago, it has con­firmed a re­mark­able 13 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees, all of whom would have been blocked by Re­pub­lic­an fili­buster just four weeks ago. And it’s mov­ing quickly to con­firm 11 more be­fore the Sen­ate re­cesses for the year. This is what the post-nuc­le­ar Sen­ate looks like.

Be­fore Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id det­on­ated the so-called “nuc­le­ar op­tion” just be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, Pres­id­ent Obama’s nom­in­ees could ex­pect a con­firm­a­tion pro­cess as slow as molasses — if they made it through at all. As of Oc­to­ber, there were 42 court nom­in­ees who still hadn’t been taken up by the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, let alone the full Sen­ate, and a back­log of 19 nom­in­a­tions for va­can­cies iden­ti­fied as “ju­di­cial emer­gen­cies.” Nom­in­ees for both ex­ec­ut­ive and ju­di­cial po­s­i­tions of­ten had to wait for months or even more than a year for con­firm­a­tion, lead­ing many to choose to with­draw their names from con­sid­er­a­tion.

It’s hardly a new prob­lem. A com­mis­sion on pub­lic ser­vice chaired by former Fed Chair­man Paul Vol­ck­er re­leased a re­port in 2003 identi­fy­ing what it called the “pres­id­en­tial ap­pointee prob­lem,” not­ing that “the ap­point­ments pro­cess is very slow” due to ex­tra vet­ting from the le­gis­lat­ive and ex­ec­ut­ive branches in re­cent years. It’s got­ten much worse since then.

In Novem­ber, Re­id and Sen­ate Demo­crats voted to change the rules by weak­en­ing the fili­buster and thus re­mov­ing the de facto 60-vote threshold needed to con­firm ju­di­cial and ex­ec­ut­ive nom­in­ees (they made an ex­cep­tion for Su­preme Court picks). Re­pub­lic­ans have thrown a fit, but Demo­crats say the spate of post-nuc­le­ar con­firm­a­tions show ex­actly why the rules needed to change.

Take Jeh John­son, whom the Sen­ate con­firmed Monday night to lead the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity. The Sen­ate first voted to end de­bate on his nom­in­a­tion via clo­ture, where John­son re­ceived 57 votes to 37 — not enough un­der the old rules. But thanks to the new rules, the pro­cess moved for­ward and mo­ments later, the Sen­ate voted on the ac­tu­al con­firm­a­tion, where John­son re­ceived 78 votes to 16. That sug­gests that there were at least 20 Re­pub­lic­ans who wanted to con­firm John­son, but would have blocked his nom­in­a­tion for one reas­on or an­oth­er if they still could.

The post-nuc­le­ar Sen­ate also made short work of oth­er top-tier nom­in­ees Re­pub­lic­ans had been ob­struct­ing, like Pa­tri­cia Mil­lett to sit on the power­ful D.C. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals and Mel Watt to head the Fed­er­al Hous­ing Fin­ance Agency.

And those in the next batch in­clude John Koskin­en, picked to be com­mis­sion­er of the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice, a spot Re­pub­lic­ans were sure to make hay of. And per­haps most im­port­antly of all, Janet Yel­len, who will be­come ar­gu­ably the most power­ful wo­man in the world when con­firmed to head the Fed­er­al Re­serve.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell vowed re­venge when Demo­crats changed the rules, but so far the re­tri­bu­tion has been more an­noy­ing than genu­inely pain­ful, mak­ing sen­at­ors stay up late to vote at 2 and 7 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans plan to use their caucus lunch Tues­day to plot their next move. They could con­tin­ue run­ning out the clock, and keep the Sen­ate in ses­sion through Christ­mas, but neither side really wants that.

They’ve also threatened to ob­struct com­mit­tee busi­ness, but lacked unity among GOP rank­ing mem­bers for a real boy­cott, since many think com­mit­tee busi­ness is too im­port­ant to be put on hold for polit­ic­al reas­ons. An­oth­er op­tion would be to send all pending nom­in­a­tions back to the White House at the end of the year.

Re­gard­less of what they chose to do, Re­pub­lic­ans can only delay things mo­ment­ar­ily. All of Obama’s nom­in­ees that Re­id moved for­ward will be con­firmed re­l­at­ively shortly. 

That’s good for Demo­crats, but their for­tunes will al­most cer­tainly be re­versed when Re­pub­lic­ans even­tu­ally take con­trol of Sen­ate, wheth­er that’s next year or some­time in the dis­tant fu­ture. 

In the grand scheme, the rules change will be a wash polit­ic­ally. But it’s a win for any­one con­cerned about the gov­ern­ment and courts’ abil­ity to func­tion without lead­er­ship.

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