Senate Republicans are delaying at least two Cabinet-level nominations with potential effects on industries, complicating President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda.
Obama’s choices to lead the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have been delayed by feuds over their past positions and the policies of departments they aspire to lead. His nominee to lead the Energy Department had been stalled, though an agreement was reached late yesterday for a confirmation vote.
All Republicans on a panel that was scheduled to vote yesterday on Gina McCarthy’s nomination to head the EPA delayed it by refusing to show up. An unidentified Republican on May 8 postponed for a week a panel vote on Labor Secretary nominee Thomas Perez, as party leaders announced they oppose him.
A single senator had stalled a full Senate vote on Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz.
“The confirmation process is increasingly turning into a hostage situation,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The Senate earlier this year had disputes over the confirmations of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Central Iintelligence Agency Director John Brennan.
The current delays may be a warm-up to what could be a contentious confirmation process for Chicago businesswoman and Obama fundraiser Penny Pritzker to lead the Commerce Department.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid denounced what he said are Republican stalling tactics on the nominations.
“Republicans will use any procedural roadblock or stall tactic available to deny the President qualified nominees,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on the Senate floor yesterday. “But my Republican colleagues can try every trick in the book. I assure you Mr. Perez will have his day in the Senate. I assure you Ms. McCarthy will have her day in the Senate.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney yesterday said Senate Republicans should “stop the theater” and move on with McCarthy’s nomination. He told reporters traveling with the president to an event in Texas that the administration remains confident the nominees eventually will be confirmed.
Senate Republican leaders say the criticism is unfounded, and that the recent holdups are part of a careful examination of nominees whose records raise important questions.
“We’ve processed a lot of nominations, but some of the nominees the president has put up are really problematic,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican leader. “Congress has a role to play, in terms of advice and consent. They need to relax a bit and let the Senate do its job.”
The Cabinet-level nominations have encountered roadblocks for different reasons.
Perez, now the Justice Department’s top civil rights lawyer, has differed with Republicans over his handling of two whistle-blower lawsuits that the Justice Department declined to pursue. They were part of a deal in which St. Paul, Minnesota, agreed to drop a case being appealed to the Supreme Court in return for the department withdrawing from the other cases.
The Supreme Court case risked striking down an enforcement tool used by Justice in housing discrimination cases.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Perez clashed with Republicans over the lawsuits. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, added muscle to growing partisan opposition this week, calling Perez a “crusading ideologue” with a history of twisting the law to win desired outcomes.
An unidentified Republican senator invoked a seldom-used Senate rule to delay a planned committee vote until next week. Meanwhile, McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart, said it’s clear Perez will need backing from at least 60 senators to end delaying tactics by opponents.
McCarthy’s detractors said yesterday that their decision to avoid the planned panel vote had less to do with her than with the agency’s actions. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the EPA refused to fully answer a series of questions he posed that relate to transparency over the agency’s development and analysis of clean-air rules. McCarthy is now the EPA’s assistant administrator for air pollution.
The confirmation of Moniz, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor, was approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a 21-1 vote in April. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, had placed a “hold” on a floor vote to protest the administration’s recommended cuts to a plutonium processing plant in his home state.
Reid announced late yesterday that an agreement had been reached to debate and vote on Moniz’s nomination.
In 2012, Republicans -- facing record-low approval ratings and White House accusations that they were obstructionists -- decided against holding up confirmations to protest the president’s appointment of officials while Congress was on a holiday break.
On Jan. 4, 2012, Obama bypassed Senate confirmation and installed the first U.S. consumer financial watchdog -- a position Republicans wanted to abolish -- and three new members to the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans debated holding up nominations, though later let judicial and executive-branch picks move through the chamber, which Democrats control with 55 votes.
This month’s delays return the Senate to the confirmation battles of 2011. Republicans that year for months held up a vote on former Edison International Chief Executive Officer John Bryson, Obama’s choice for commerce secretary, until the White House forwarded pending trade deals for South Korea, Panama and Colombia to Congress for approval.
Some nominees, including Federal Reserve board choice Peter Diamond, withdrew their names from consideration that year because of delays.
Obama’s nomination last week of Tom Wheeler, a venture capitalist and former lobbyist, to lead the Federal Communications Commission may face a confirmation fight amid a cool reception from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.
“What’s unusual is the number of these disputes that are breaking out now,” said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
He said the number of current disputes over Obama’s nominees is partly because the balance of power didn’t shift in Washington after the 2012 election. Republicans, he said, are starting to look to the 2014 congressional elections, and a 2016 presidential contest when Obama will have left the stage.
“The president is now a lame duck,” Pitney said. “Second-term presidents don’t have the same energy and influence they had. The laws of political gravity are taking hold, and some nominees are getting pulled down as a result.”