Obama's Recess Appointments Put Focus On Holds

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President Obama made over the weekend his first use of the presidential power to install appointees on his own when Congress is in recess. Some senators are objecting to the move, but others say it may be a time to put a hold on the holds that senators place on some nominations.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

It's been more than 14 months since President Obama took office, yet hundreds of key jobs in both the administration and the federal courts are still not filled. One part of the problem is the U.S. Senate. Senate rules allow a single senator to block nominees with a threatened filibuster known as a hold. That privilege has been used to block scores of waiting appointments.

Over the weekend, Mr. Obama, for the first time, made use of the presidential power to install appointees while Congress is in recess. Some senators are objecting to that move.

But as NPR's David Welna reports, others are saying it may be time to put holds on hold.

DAVID WELNA: President Obama is by no means the only president who's bypassed the Senate with recess appointments. At this point in his first term, President George W. Bush had used the congressional break to install 15 nominees held up by the Senate - exactly the same number President Obama installed over the weekend.

But Democrats say the current use of holds is different. Earlier this month, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner took to the Senate floor with a group of junior senators to vent.

Senator MARK WARNER (Democrat, Virginia): Maybe we don't understand all of the rules and traditions. We've basically spent our first year or so trying to learn those rules and traditions. But one of the things that has united us and all coming here this morning is that the nominations process is broken.

WELNA: Warner cited the case of a federal appeals court nominee from Virginia who, after having her nomination put on hold for four months by a single senator, finally got a vote and won confirmation unanimously.

Last week on the last day the Senate was in session, Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin tried getting his Republican colleagues to agree to promote a brigadier Army general to the rank of major general.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Armed Services Committee): This is the situation: For five months, five months, we have a uniform officer of the United States whose career is being interfered with in this way, whose advancement is being interfered with because there's a hold on this nomination from one Republican senator.

WELNA: That senator was Louisiana Republican David Vitter who's blocking the general's promotion, not for any objection to the general, but because he wants the Army Corps of Engineers to build three projects in his state.

Vitter was not present to object to Levin's request, so Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn told Levin this.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): I must say to my colleague I agree with him on what he said. But under the conventions that we use, senators can ask others to object on their behalf. And regrettably, I've been asked to do that and will do that on Senator Vitter's behalf.

WELNA: Currently, 77 Obama nominees have committee approval and await full Senate confirmation. But all have holds on them, meaning at least one senator won't agree to the unanimous consent required for an up or down vote. It takes 60 votes and often days of precious Senate floor time to overcome each such objection.

Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss acknowledges such holds are a problem.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): I wish we didn't have to go through that process but it's the nature of the Senate.

WELNA: Do you think that that nature should be changed in any way?

Sen. CHAMBLISS: No. It's one of the assets that members of the Senate have to get things done.

WELNA: Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd says it's one thing to put a hold on a nominee because you find that person unqualified.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): But the idea that you would take, you know, to deny someone a promotion somewhere who had little or nothing to do with your concern about something else is the kind of abuse that it's hard to restrain it in some ways. You have to depend upon members in many ways exercising restraint.

WELNA: Other Democrats want to go further. One of them is Delaware's Ted Kaufman.

Senator TED KAUFMAN (Democrat, Delaware): I think we ought to take a hard look at holds. I really do. I mean, I'm all for maintaining the filibuster at 60, but I think we got to take a hard look at holds.

WELNA: But in the hundred-member Senate, where it takes 67 votes to change the rules, the hold of the past is hard to break.

David Welna, NPR News, the White House.

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