Harry Reid’s dilemma: Side with Republicans or Obama – Politico
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has signaled he’s open to making a deal with Republicans to clear a finite list of President Barack Obama’s languishing nominees, but the idea sets up a potential conflict with fellow Democrats and the White House who want to ram through as many as possible now before they hand over their majority.
Reid’s approach would keep the holiday season from ending in a series of bitter midnight sessions and could avoid antagonizing Republicans, who are warning Democrats not to test them just weeks before the Senate changes hands in January.
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But other Democrats argue Republicans may have little interest in approving the bulk of the president’s nominees regardless of what happens in the next few weeks, so it’s now or never to act on a slate of new judges, ambassadors and perhaps even the confirmation of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch.
“Let’s clear the decks, unless we can get some agreement with Republicans,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We should stay all night and all weekend getting the president’s nominees on the job.”
Added independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont: “We still have the majority. I think we should be as aggressive as we can.”
The nominee fight could create more conflict between Reid and the White House, after a difficult and divisive election season that saw darts fly between Senate Democrats and the administration over political strategy. The White House is aggressively pushing for clearing the backlog on ambassadors and progressives are clamoring to confirm judges. It leaves Reid under enormous pressure to keep his party and president happy, while risking a more toxic atmosphere in January when he hands leadership of the Senate to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
There are 35 nominated ambassadors, 16 lifetime judicial nominees and dozens of other nominees ready for consideration on the Senate floor. Many lower-level nominees are not controversial and could be confirmed in a bloc unanimously at the end of the session, as is customary.
But Republicans are sick of Democrats doling out lifetime appointments to judges, and there are several languishing nominees the GOP specifically lists as problematic. There’s surgeon general pick Vivek Murthy, who’s drawn conservative criticism after deeming gun violence a public health concern, and National Labor Relations Board member Sharon Block, a highly divisive figure among right-to-work Republicans. They also want more time to probe Lynch’s record.
“There are only a few weeks left for the Senate to act to confirm several hundred talented and committed Americans who are willing to enter public service but unfortunately have had to wait, sometimes for hundreds of days, to get to work. There is an urgent need to confirm these nominees awaiting confirmation,” said a White House official over the weekend.
A deal between Reid and Republicans would surely fall short of entirely clearing the backlog but would allow votes to happen on a more reasonable schedule than if Republicans were to fight Democrats on each vote, aides in both parties said. With that in mind, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Senate needs to do as much as possible to get Obama his team before Republicans take the Senate and shade the nomination process with uncertainty.
“We feel that we’re duty-bound to give this president the team he needs to finish his time in office,” Durbin said. He, too, hopes to find an agreement with the GOP, but, “if not, we have to work the calendar” — a “worst-case scenario.”
The stakes are high. Republicans are still fuming about last year’s Senate rules change that gutted the filibuster, which allowed Obama and the Democrats to dramatically reshape the courts by approving dozens of lifetime judges and install several controversial executive nominees.
If Republicans feel further burned by Democrats unilaterally approving another slate of nominees in the lame-duck session, there may be little motivation for the GOP to cooperate with Obama’s nominees next year. There’s no appetite in the GOP to swiftly confirm anyone who carries a whiff of controversy this year — and Republicans’ defenses are already up.
“We have to be prepared for that,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican. “There’s not going to be much interest in allowing the Dems to run over us in the lame duck to push through bad nominees.”
Barring an agreement with Republicans, there would be little time to hold votes on nominees within the Senate’s usual Monday-Thursday schedule. A litany of deadline-driven tasks has accumulated for the lame duck: Government funding runs out on Dec. 11, as does authority to train and equip Syrian rebels; Internet and TV bills must be extended; and lawmakers are hoping to pass a series of tax breaks for businesses and individuals and a defense authorization bill.
Republican senators have already said that Obama’s picks will receive much more scrutiny in their Senate, and many in the GOP have little interest in approving additional lifetime judges with liberal leanings — though they vow to process “noncontroversial” nominees quickly. The attorney general pick does not fall into that bucket, given that Eric Holder will stay on until his successor is confirmed.
“To force a confirmation vote on the attorney general would be a mistake,” said Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the outgoing chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. “I hope what happens in the lame-duck session is accomplished in a nonconfrontational way. And then we save what is not required for the new Congress.”
With leadership elections scheduled for this week, and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays around the corner, there’s a lot on the Senate’s plate. Hence the hopes among Democrats that Reid and McConnell can work out a more convenient schedule than would otherwise occur with GOP opposition.
Senators lived through the all-nighters once after Democrats changed the Senate rules to water down the minority’s filibuster, and it wasn’t pretty: That December session taxed senators and staffers mentally and physically. Democrats did not try it again, and there may be even less motivation for ousted or retiring Democrats to spend the holidays churning through low-level nominations.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who will be the only Democrat around next year to have opposed the Democrats’ rules change, is counseling against anything that could be interpreted as jamming the Republicans. His words carry meaning: He’s considering running for governor if the Senate sputters into gridlock next year.
“The people have spoken loud and clear. And if we go back as the Democrats just because we have the majority for a couple months and ram things through?” he said. “Don’t fall for that trap now.”
But Manchin, for now, is in the minority. Many members of the caucus that are preaching an otherwise bipartisan legislative atmosphere next year want to see out their work on putting Obama’s team in place, particularly on the federal bench.
“That is an issue that I’m willing to fight over,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
The Senate has already scheduled a vote on two District Court judges for this week, and Reid could call up more judicial nominees ready for floor action after that, in addition to dozens of potential future ambassadors and other executive picks. Republicans cannot stop them under the current rules, but they can delay them through procedural tactics, which in concert with the chamber’s busy legislative schedule would turn the last days of Democratic control into a long and ugly slog.
The Senate Judiciary Committee could also prepare further judges for floor action, as some liberal groups like People for the American Way are urging Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to do. Leahy is also the Senate’s point man on a new attorney general, but the chamber’s most senior member has his own priorities: He wants to reform the National Security Agency during the lame-duck session. Everything else is secondary.