MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We turn now from the House to the Senate, which is in charge with confirming President Obama's nominees for federal courts and executive agencies. Dozens of those nominees have sailed through committee hearings only to see things come to a full stop on the Senate floor. The culprit: secret holds. They allow any senator to block any nomination, any time for any reason, anonymously. A new rule meant to lift the secrecy has had minimal effect.
As NPR's David Welna reports, an effort is now underway to ban secret holds altogether.
DAVID WELNA: Three years ago, the Senate passed a law many of its members hoped would end the practice of secret holds. That law stipulated that if there was any anonymous objection to bringing up either a bill or a nomination, the name of the senator who was objecting had to be published in the Congressional Record within six days.
Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill decided to use that law to try to reveal which senators had put secret holds on dozens of President Obama's choices. So two weeks ago, she went to the Senate floor and one by one demanded consideration of 74 stalled nominees.
Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): That the nomination be confirmed, the motions to reconsider - be considered made and laid upon the table, no further motions be in order, the president be immediately notified of the Senate's actions, and that any statements relating to the nominee appear in the appropriate place in the Record as if read.
Unidentified Man: Is there objection?
Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): Mr. President, I object.
Unidentified Man: Objection is heard.
WELNA: It was Jon Kyl, the Senate's number two Republican who objected to each and every nominee McCaskill mentioned. Kyl said he was doing so just to be sure no other senator had objections. He's one of 13 Republicans who voted against the measure requiring disclosure of secret holds.
Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, on the other hand, has tried for years to end secret holds. He spoke on the Senate floor the following day.
Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): Let me just say that if any of my colleagues have holds on either side of the aisle, they ought to have the guts to go public and to go public the minute that they put the hold on, not like this mysterious way that it's done now, which really amounts to nothing.
WELNA: Last week, Democrat McCaskill returned to the Senate chamber to demand confirmation votes on two Obama nominees for the National Transportation Safety Board. And just as he had a week earlier, number two Republican Kyl objected.
Sen. KYL: I have no objection to these two people, so I am not holding them. I am objecting on behalf of the Republican leadership in order to enable the two leaders to clear both of these nominees - that is, to make sure that there is no objection on either side so that they can both go forward. That's the basis for my objection.
WELNA: McCaskill replied that the Republican and Democratic leaders had already conferred, and it was clear no Democrats objected to the nominations.
Sen. McCASKILL: Now, if anybody can't see - as plain as the nose on your face - what's going on, they just need to tune in and pay attention. This is called stall and block, stall and block, stall and block, stall and block. And fine, but own it. If you're gonna stall and block, let's see who you are.
WELNA: Last Friday was the deadline for disclosing the names of the senators who'd put secret holds on the dozens of nominees McCaskill tried to get confirmed. But not one of those names ever got printed in the Congressional Record.
Again, Claire McCaskill.
Sen. McCASKILL: I, frankly, didn't think we'd get all of them. But I thought we'd get some of them. I was shocked that there was no disclosure in the Congressional Record on Friday, which means they have taken the position that we don't have to follow this rule, that this rule doesn't mean anything to us.
WELNA: Today, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn became the first Republican senator to reveal secret holds he's placed on six nominees.
McCaskill, in the meantime, has gotten 51 Democrats to sign a letter to both leaders demanding that the secret holds be abolished. Asked yesterday about those holds, Republican leader Mitch McConnell called them an issue of individual senators' rights.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): We've always had a challenging environment in the Senate with regard to the confirmation of executive branch appointments. This administration has been treated about the same as the previous administrations in terms of the pace of confirmations.
WELNA: Rutgers University congressional expert Ross Baker says things are in fact far worse than they've ever been, but he doubts the Senate can get rid of secret holds.
Professor ROSS BAKER (Political Science, Rutgers University): It's difficult to police something when you really aren't able to come up with any hard evidence to enforce it, and that's what makes the secret holds so diabolically difficult to deal with.
WELNA: Today, in a sign of progress, secret holds on three district court nominees were lifted; two were then approved unanimously; the third, 96 to one.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.