Nearly a year and a half after taking office, President Obama is still struggling to get many of his key executive and judicial branch appointees confirmed by the Senate. Almost all those nominations have been stalled by unnamed Republican senators using what's known as a secret hold. That's prompting moves by Senate Democrats and even some Republicans to curtail secret holds or do away with them. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: A secret hold is essentially an anonymous threat by a senator to filibuster a bill or a nomination, and the practice has been around a long time. But Democrats say it's never been used, or abused, as it has been since President Obama was sworn in. During President George W. Bush's first term in office, only 13 nominations had been pending in the Senate for more than two days when Congress left for its Memorial Day recess. In contrast, during the current Memorial Day break, 120 of Mr. Obama's nominees await Senate confirmation. For those who have gotten confirmed, it took on average more than 100 days.

Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says the issue is not the nominees themselves.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): There is a clear, systemic attack here on the Obama administration's ability to staff its administration and thus govern.

WELNA: Senate Democrats have tried several times in recent weeks to advance nominations. Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar noted that as oil has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, nominees for two vacancies on the Marine Mammal Commission have been blocked more than two months by secret holds.

Senator AMY KLOBUCHAR (Democrat, Minnesota): We're dealing with marine issues right now, extreme marine issues of what's going to happen to our wildlife in the oceans. Why would anyone hold up members of the Marine Mammal Commission?

WELNA: Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn did not say why, but he did object on behalf of an anonymous colleague with a secret hold.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): I intend to object to every one of these, not because I personally have an objection, and I want my colleagues to know that. But one of the considerations of courtesy on the Senate floor is if somebody else does, you will honor that.

Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): That is what drives America crazy about this place.

WELNA: That's Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who's been leading an effort to ban secret holds.

Sen. MCCASKILL: The secret hold is wrong. The senator from Oklahoma knows it and I guarantee you most of his colleagues do.

WELNA: Two years ago, the Senate voted to require that the names of those placing secret holds be made public within six legislative days. But the rule has rarely been honored. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden now wants the names of the secret holders revealed within two days - or the senator who objects on their behalf will own the hold. Wyden said secret holds have become a powerful tool not only for senators but for lobbyists as well.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): In fact, if you can get a United States senator to put an anonymous hold on a bill, it's almost like hitting the lobbyist jackpot. Not only is the senator protected by a cloak of anonymity, but so is the lobbyist.

WELNA: Wyden's co-sponsor is Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley. He says curbing secret holds may not have been a high priority in the past for the Senate...

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): But now there's all this concern about what's going on with so many holds on the United States Senate that it's influencing the productivity of the United States Senate.

WELNA: But when Grassley and Wyden tried last week to have a vote on their secret holds measure, South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint objected.

Senator JIM DEMINT (Republican, South Carolina): There are a lot of pressing issues that we face as a country. But one of them is not secret holds.

WELNA: Meanwhile, Missouri Democrat McCaskill is circulating a petition to abolish secret holds altogether. So far, 64 senators have signed it, including six Republicans. That's three shy of the 67 needed for a rules change.

Sen. MCCASKILL: That's the goal here. That's the end zone that I'm working towards. We are definitely in the red zone, but we are not to the goal line yet.

WELNA: It's not a matter of if, McCaskill says, but when.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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