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Six months into President Obama's term, members of the administration and Congress are complaining that not enough judges and other appointees have been confirmed. All of the major players are blaming each other.
NPR's Ari Shapiro explains what's going on and why it matters.
ARI SHAPIRO: One of the spoils of any presidential election is the right to make appointments: judges, U.S. attorneys and executive officials galore. The president chooses them and the Senate confirms or rejects them. So far this year, the Senate has confirmed zero judges and zero U.S. attorneys. It's been three months since the Senate voted on a Justice Department nominee. The man tapped to chair the Sentencing Commission has been waiting almost that long. Many Democrats find the situation unacceptable.
Mr. ROBERT RABEN (Former U.S. Assistant Attorney General, Department of Justice Office of Legislative Affairs): Democrats should be motivated to get this done.
SHAPIRO: Robert Raben ran the Justice Department's Office of Legislative Affairs in the '90s.
Mr. RABEN: We've got recent experience with our last Democratic president that not moving as quickly as possible pays an enormous price.
SHAPIRO: Two years into the Clinton presidency, Democrats lost control of Congress and the confirmation process became much harder. Senate Democrats say they're trying. At a Judiciary Committee meeting today, Chairman Patrick Leahy blamed Republicans.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): Republican objections have prevented the Senate from confirming nominees reported by the Judiciary Committee for over two months since May 12th, including as I said, somebody sponsored by the ranking Republican on this committee, Senator Sessions.
SHAPIRO: Republican Senator Jeff Sessions sponsored the U.S. attorney nominee for Alabama, who has been waiting for a vote since mid-June. People from both sides of the aisle say Senate Republicans are punishing Democrats for the timing of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Republicans wanted to vote on her in the fall, Democrats insisted on August. And now, Republicans are blocking votes on everybody else. Some Republicans say Democrats could change that if they wanted to. Stuart Gerson used to be acting attorney general.
Mr. STUART GERSON: I would think that the Democrats could cut through the morass.
SHAPIRO: The Senate Democratic caucus has 60 votes, enough to overcome a filibuster. But Democratic leaders say even if they break a filibuster, Republicans then get 30 hours to debate. Those delays can interfere with other priorities, like health care. Gerson believes the president could also move this along.
Mr. GERSON: If there were more nominees from the White House, probably, it would be easier.
SHAPIRO: Senate Democrats agree. They say a huge backlog of nominees would give them leverage to complain. But the White House has only nominated 10 federal judges. President Bush had nominated 34 six months into his first term.
The White House says a big pile of unconfirmed nominees doesn't help anybody, but they appear to be alone in that view. Frankly, this White House is doing no worse at getting people confirmed than previous administrations at this point. Presidents Clinton and Bush had their first U.S. attorneys confirmed in September. The first Bush judges were confirmed in July.
But administration officials privately concede that they believe they should be farther along because the situation here is different from previous administrations. President Bush had a slow start because the Supreme Court didn't decide the election until December. President Clinton had no attorney general until March. The Obama administration has no such excuse, and their party has a much bigger majority in the Senate than Clinton or Bush did.
So why does any of this matter? Well, there'll soon be more than 100 judicial vacancies. For Democrats, confirming judges is important to tip the balance of a judiciary that is now dominated by Republican appointees. In a U.S. attorney's office, a presidential appointee could advance the Obama agenda. Matt Orwig was a U.S. attorney in Texas under President Bush.
Mr. MATT ORWIG (U.S. Attorney, Texas): It's always at the beginning of an administration when there's a new energy and a new focus and a setting of new priorities. I think the Obama administration has lost that opportunity.
SHAPIRO: And that's not just a Republican's view. Donald Stern was President Clinton's U.S. attorney in Boston, and he served on the Obama Justice Department transition team.
Mr. DONALD STERN (U.S. Attorney, Boston): It's very important for morale that the new president be in place. The ship doesn't run quite as smoothly without the new person being there.
SHAPIRO: One former senior Justice official, who is now in private practice, describe the situation this way: I have three cases where the Justice Department is going after my clients in different cities. A year ago, I had six or seven lawyers working on them, this person said. Since January, the cases all just went to sleep.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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