President’s nominees face do-or-die moment as Congress sets to adjourn

President’s nominees face do-or-die moment as Congress sets to adjourn
© Getty Images

Anxiety is mounting among advocacy groups over the fates of dozens of executive and judicial branch nominees who remain in Senate limbo as the 113th Congress gets ready to close up shop.

With Republicans poised to take control of the chamber in January, many see the next several days as the last, best chance to approve President Obama’s choices. Any nominee who isn’t approved before the end of this Congress would have to be renominated in 2015.

ADVERTISEMENT
Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDemocrats local party problem Trump flirts with Dems for Cabinet Lawmakers eye early exit from Washington MORE (D-Nev.) has pledged to confirm Vivek Murthy to serve as the next surgeon general despite strong opposition from the National Rifle Association.

Murthy’s beleaguered nomination gained new life in recent days after red-state Democrats such as Sen. Mark PryorMark PryorCotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Top Democrats are no advocates for DC statehood MORE (Ark.) and Jon TesterJon TesterRed-state Dems face tough votes on Trump picks Montana Republican warns of Senate challenge to Tester Vulnerable Dems ready to work with Trump MORE (Mont.) announced their backing.

Reid has steadily churned through nominees this year, taking advantage of the rule change Democrats made last year that lowered the threshold from 60 votes to a simple majority for most positions. But 172 nominations were still pending on the executive calendar Wednesday, including nine district court nominees and 18 State Department picks. 

A Senate Democratic aide said there is a backlog of court vacancies because Republicans have flouted the long-standing Senate precedent of clearing nominations before the end of each year.

“Rather than working in a bipartisan fashion to confirm consensus nominees to fill judgeships as we wind down for the year, Senate Republicans have deliberately refused to agree to vote on consensus nominees who could and should be confirmed without delay,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyPassing US-Canada preclearance would improve security and economy GOP wants to move fast on Sessions Senate Dems pan talk of short-term spending bill MORE (D-Vt.) said in December of last year.

Reid is threatening to keep the Senate in session as long as necessary.

“You know, maybe we’ll have to work the weekend and maybe even work next week,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve given a list to the Republicans and it’s up to them to decide how long we stay.”

Reid’s top priorities include Obama’s picks to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Social Security Administration and the nine pending federal judges.

• Obama has tapped Sarah Saldaña, a Dallas-based attorney, to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month moved her nomination to the floor, where she faces opposition from Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzCruz: I'd rather have Trump talk to Taiwan than Cuba or Iran Lewandowski: Top Cruz aide advised Trump team before NH primary Five reasons why Donald Trump could be the 'Greatest Communicator' MORE (R-Texas), who called her a “rubber stamp for amnesty.”

• Republicans have pledged to block Carolyn Colvin, Obama’s choice to head the Social Security Administration, because of concerns about her record as acting commissioner. Critics are focused on a faulty $300 million computer project at the agency.

Liberal groups say the Senate should confirm all of the district court nominees on the executive calendar as well as three still pending in the Judiciary Committee.

“We want to make sure all the judicial nominees who are ready to go get through before the end of the year,” said Michelle Schwartz, director of justice programs at the Alliance for Justice.

She pointed out that most of the nominees were approved in committee by voice vote and have the support of both home-state senators.

Robert Pitman, a nominee to the District Court for the Western District of Texas, is the first openly gay judicial nominee in Texas and would be the first such nominee in any state represented by two Republican senators.

Amit Mehta, a nominee to the D.C. District Court, would be the first Asian Pacific-American to serve on that court and would add professional diversity as a former public defender.

Haywood Gilliam is Obama’s pick to serve on the court for the Northern District of California. Supporters say he would increase the number of African-Americans on that court.

Loretta Biggs, a judicial nominee to the Middle District of North Carolina, would be the first African-American female federal judge in North Carolina. Her nomination has yet to be approved by the Judiciary Committee.

Elizabeth Dillon, a nominee to the Western District of Virginia, would be the first woman to serve as a judge on that court. She also awaits a vote in committee. 

“We would love to see all of the ones pending confirmed. If that’s not going to happen, we’d like to see the judges confirmed that Sen. Reid has prioritized,” said Shane Larson, legislative director of the Communications Workers of America.

Some nominees have run into staunch opposition and will probably not be confirmed.

• Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSanders vs. Trump: The battle of the bully pulpit Trump’s Treasury pick leaves Sears board: report Reeling Dems look for new leader MORE (D-Mass.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinTrump flirts with Dems for Cabinet Trump meets with Dem senator amid Cabinet speculation Overnight Energy: Walden wins Energy gavel | Trump looks at Dems to head Energy, Interior MORE (D-W.Va.), representing both ends of the Democratic ideological spectrum, have lined up against Antonio Weiss, Obama’s selection to serve as Treasury undersecretary for Domestic Finance. Democrats have balked at his employment at Lazard, an investment banking firm.

Michael Boggs, whom Obama nominated to the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, stalled after getting strong pushback from the Congressional Black Caucus. The president picked him as part of a package deal with Georgia Republican Sens. Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissWyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying Cruz is a liability Inside Paul Ryan’s brain trust MORE and Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonGOP senators wary of nuking filibuster SENATE: Republicans defy odds to keep majority A banner year for U.S. leadership on aid effectiveness MORE. Black lawmakers objected to his past support for keeping the Confederate emblem on the Georgia flag. Leahy said in September that Boggs doesn’t have the votes.

Michelle Lee, Obama’s choice to lead the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, will likely have to wait until next year. Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyDrug pricing debate going into hibernation GOP leaders host Trump's top deputies Key Republican wants details on Ohio State attacker MORE (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said at a hearing on Lee Wednesday that “everybody in the room today, including the nominees, understand that there isn’t enough time for these for these nominations to be confirmed before we adjourn.”

Labor and liberal advocacy groups are pressing Senate Democrats to move several long-delayed nominees.

• The Communications Workers of America wants to see Richard Engler finally confirmed to the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Obama first announced his nomination two years ago.

• The Fix the Senate Now coalition issued a statement Wednesday calling on Senate Democrats to confirm nominees to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) before adjourning. The commission was created in 2002 to avoid election mishaps that led to the controversial Florida recount two years earlier that awarded the presidency to George W. Bush over Al GoreAl GoreStein’s recount effort is important — here’s why The power of paper Trump's victory margin smaller than total Stein votes in key swing states MORE. The agency does not have a single commissioner in place, denying it the quorum it needs to make policy decisions.

Thomas Hicks, one of the pending nominees, was first tapped by Obama in April of 2010.

“What we are really going into overdrive over are the Election Assistance Commission nominees because the EAC has not had a single commissioner since 2011,” said Stephen Spaulding, policy counsel at Common Cause. “It has been totally paralyzed and subject to the dysfunction on Capitol Hill.”

Spaulding warned of “an impending crisis in voting technology” because many voting machines are worn out.

 

Mario Trujillo contributed.