Senate Sets Stage for Partisan Clash on Obama Nominations

Senate Democratic leaders are forcing a confrontation with Republicans to end delays in confirming seven of President Barack Obama’s nominees including Labor secretary and head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today he also has enough votes among Democrats to change Senate rules to bar the minority party from obstructing executive-branch nominees, escalating a fight that Republicans say could cause them to halt Senate business in protest. Reid took action today setting up votes on the nominees, while leaders in both parties later agreed to a rare closed-door meeting of all 100 senators on July 15 to try to resolve the impasse.

“It is time to end the gridlock that has paralyzed this institution and this nation,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters after meeting with party members. A vote on the nominees could come as early as next week.

Reid is seeking to end delays that have prevented Obama from filling vacancies in his second-term Cabinet and other top jobs. The nominations of Thomas Perez to run the Labor Department, Gina McCarthy to lead the EPA and Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau face Republican opposition and risk failing in a filibuster. It takes 60 votes to end the delaying tactic, and Democrats control 54 seats, including the two independents who caucus with the party.

Contentious Rules

The parties have been sparring for weeks over Reid’s threat to seek a permanent change in rules that would ban filibusters of executive-branch nominees. Republicans say that breaks a pledge by Reid not to take such a step, and they say it would constitute a “nuclear option” that could cause them to use filibusters in other ways to halt work in the Senate.

That fight escalated today as Reid in a floor speech said Republican leader Mitch McConnell is breaking his word. McConnell, he said, had earlier agreed to act on Obama’s nominees in a timely way, and instead Republicans are engaging in “consistent and unprecedented obstruction” that often ties objections to the policies of agencies, not the nominees.

Reid said Republicans are increasingly ignoring a Senate tradition of requiring a simple majority to confirm a president’s nominees, pointing to the February filibuster during consideration of Chuck Hagel to be Defense secretary. He was later confirmed.

‘Manufactured Crisis’

McConnell in response to Reid called the matter an “absolutely phony manufactured crisis” aimed at permanently depriving the Senate’s minority party of any power. He also said the Perez and McCarthy nominations will probably overcome obstructionist tactics if scheduled for a vote, as will Cordray’s, if the Senate completes negotiations on “reforms” to the financial board.

Democrats won’t always be in charge, and could suffer later if the rules change occurs, he said.

“This Pandora’s Box, once opened, would be utilized again and again by a future majorities -- and it will make the meaningful consensus-building that has served our nation so well a relic of the past,” said McConnell, of Kentucky.

The other nominees scheduled for a vote include Fred Hochberg, re-nominated by Obama to lead the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board - - Mark Gaston Pearce, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin.

Cordray’s Post

Cordray was nominated to lead the CFPB in 2011. His selection languished because Republicans said they opposed the structure of the new bureau, created in the Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial rules, and they blocked him with a filibuster in December 2011. The next month, Obama appointed him using his powers to act during Senate recesses, angering Republicans who said the chamber wasn’t officially in a recess and Obama lacked any authority. He was renominated by Obama on Jan. 24.

Perez, now the Justice Department’s top civil-rights lawyer, has drawn Republican opposition over his handling of two whistle-blower lawsuits that the department declined to pursue. They were part of a deal in which St. Paul, Minnesota, officials 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 in housing discrimination cases.

In McCarthy’s case, her detractors said their opposition focuses on the agency’s actions rather than her qualifications.

‘Productive Conversations’

Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said this week he had dropped his opposition to McCarthy and will no longer support a filibuster after having “very productive conversations” with agency officials. He complained last month that the EPA refused to fully answer questions he posed about the agency’s transparency over clean-air rules. McCarthy is the EPA assistant administrator for air pollution.

Two of the pending confirmations to the National Labor Relations Board were appointed the same day as Cordray. A federal appeals court in January ruled that those labor-board appointments were “constitutionally invalid” because the Senate wasn’t in recess under the definition outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

Even as Reid says he has the party’s support to change filibuster rules, not all Senate Democrats are happy that he’s proceeding. He and other Democratic leaders say he will drop the plan if Republicans let these nominees win confirmation.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said he won’t back using the “nuclear option” to change rules, after Democrats fought Republican attempts in 2005 to help ease approval of judicial nominees during the Bush administration.

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and advocate of an overhaul of filibuster rules, said he thinks changing the rules during the session sets a bad precedent.

“You can’t be changing rules every month or two months,” Harkin said. “There has got be some game plan for at least one Congress.”

Harkin said he might support a change if Republicans won’t cut a deal letting Obama’s second-term choices get into office.

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