Senate Votes to Let Some Federal Posts Bypass Confirmation

The U.S. Senate voted 79-20 to ease a logjam of executive-branch nominations by removing about 200 federal jobs from the 1,200 requiring confirmation by the chamber.

If the House follows suit, the president can simply appoint his picks to the lower-level jobs that include chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and assistant secretary of agriculture for public affairs.

Partisan tensions continue to block President Barack Obama’s choices for a handful of top jobs, including secretary of commerce.

Republican leaders say they will try to prevent a vote on former Edison International Chief Executive Officer John Bryson, Obama’s choice for commerce secretary, until the White House forwards pending trade deals for South Korea, Panama and Colombia to Congress for approval. They also say they won’t approve anyone to head a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, part of last year’s financial overhaul, until the bureau’s powers are restructured.

Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs panel, said presidents are hobbled by delays in getting executive-branch jobs filled. Some of the positions don’t merit Senate consideration, and approval of today’s measure will free senators and future presidents to focus on prospective officeholders who make policy decisions, he said.

‘Takes Too Long’

“It takes too long for an incoming president and a sitting president to get his team in place, and there are too many vacancies during the course of an administration,” said Lieberman, a Connecticut independent. Lieberman said about 25 percent of Obama’s nominees still haven’t been confirmed.

Leaders of both parties pledged to enact the legislation in January. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, also reached an informal agreement to curtail use of the filibuster - - the threat of endless debate -- to block the Senate from bringing measures to the floor.

Partisan acrimony has slowed work in the Senate, where few measures have cleared this year beyond an overhaul of patent law and a measure to modernize the Federal Aviation Administration.

Senator Lamar Alexander, the chamber’s No. 3 Republican leader and a co-sponsor of the bill that passed today, said the Senate’s action will add more sense to the process and reduce the number of nominees who find to their “great horror” they are going through a maze of paperwork and personal scrutiny to try to get a job serving the public.

‘Modest Step’

“This is a modest step, but an important one,” said Alexander of Tennessee.

There have been calls for change to the confirmation process for decades, in part because of the increasing number of executive jobs needing Senate approval. When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, fewer than 300 posts required a Senate vote. That grew to just over 900 by the time President Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993.

Nobel laureate and Federal Reserve board choice Peter Diamond announced he was withdrawing from consideration June 5 after more than a year of Republican delays. He joined a handful of other Obama nominees who dropped out because of frustration with the process.

The measure passed today applies to executive-branch appointees and doesn’t affect federal judicial nominees.

Separately, the Senate passed 89-8 a resolution to streamline the process for approving about 200 additional executive-branch positions. The rule change would allow confirmations for these jobs, generally part-time positions with federal advisory boards and councils, to bypass the committee process and go straight to the Senate floor for approval.

The bill approved today is S. 679, and the resolution is S.Res. 116.

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