ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
A modern president will normally make around 40,000 nominations during a term in office that require the advice and consent of the Senate. That process has not gone smoothly for President Obama. Many of his nominees have spent months awaiting final Senate confirmation.
His fellow Democrats and even some Republicans place the blame on an obscure tradition of the Senate known as the secret hold. It's an anonymous threat to filibuster, and as NPR's David Welna reports, it was the subject today of a Senate hearing on doing away with the practice.
DAVID WELNA: New York Senator Charles Schumer may be a Democrat, but as chairman of the Rules Committee, he struck a bipartisan note as he gaveled in today's hearing on ending secret holds.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York; Chairman, Rules Committee): We're not trying to put blame on one party or the other. We're trying to deal with the problem that has brought us close to gridlock.
WELNA: Not that the Senate hasn't tried before to end secret holds. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden has been at it more than a dozen years, and as he told his colleagues today, just because senators earlier voted to end such holds does not mean they actually stopped using them.
Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): It was an incredible power that senators have picked up. It's never been written down anywhere, the history of these holds. There's the hostage hold, the rolling hold, the Mae-West-come-up-and-see-me-sometime hold. The Senate has as many versions of holds as pro wrestling.
WELNA: Wyden's cosponsor on several bills curbing secret holds is Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley.
Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): What I object to is not the use of holds - because I do that myself - but the word secret in secret holds. If a senator has a legitimate reason to object to proceedings to a bill or a nominee, then or - he ought to have the guts to say so publicly.
WELNA: Grassley and Wyden earlier passed legislation giving senators six days to publicly claim secret holds. They now want to shrink that window to just two days. But Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill says even a two-day grace period is too much.
Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): The problem is the enforcement. That's where the rub is. That's where senators want to avoid those uncomfortable moments that they are going to be called on the carpet and forced to name who they are holding and why.
WELNA: McCaskill's leading a drive to do away with secret holds altogether. She's gathered 67 signatures - 10 of them from Republicans - on a letter to the Senate's leaders, where they promise they won't use such holds and will try to do away with them.
You need 67 senators to change the rules of the Senate, so McCaskill's confident that's now possible. She points to the fact that only yesterday, Republican leader Mitch McConnell agreed to let 64 stalled nominations get confirmed by voice vote.
Sen. MCCASKILL: It's been a long time since we've seen that kind of movement on the nominations calendar. I don't know exactly why it happened, but I have a feeling it might be that the storm clouds are gathering, and the American people are beginning to learn about some of the bad habits around here. And at the top of that list are secret holds.
WELNA: Ending secret holds, though, may not be enough to avoid the pileup of nominations in the Senate. That's what the panel heard from presidential appointments expert Calvin Mackenzie of Colby College.
Professor CALVIN MACKENZIE (Colby College): President Obama's appointees have been confirmed more slowly than any of his predecessors. Why is this? Well, first, there are too many appointees and too many hearings. For the first 130 years of our history, there were no confirmation hearings at all. Now we hold them for even the lowest-ranking nominees in all agencies.
WELNA: Chairman Schumer pointed out another potential pitfall, should secret holds be abolished.
Sen. SCHUMER: You could end up with the tradition that the majority or minority leader would just put their name on all the time, and then there's an argument, well, the opprobrium that would attach to a minority or majority leader who just blocked everything might discourage it. I'm not so sure that's true.
WELNA: Still, with Majority Leader Harry Reid onboard for ending secret holds, their days may be numbered.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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