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 Mason ReidSenators briefed on US Navy's encounters with UFOs: report Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Trump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview 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 Lunsford PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE (Ark.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterVA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Democrats aim to block defense money from being used on Trump border wall 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 Joseph LeahyThis week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Congress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks 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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz Hickenlooper, Bennet bring deep ties to 2020 debate stage 2020 Democrat Bennet releases comprehensive government reform plan GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers 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 Ann Warren2020 Democrat: 'My DM's are open and I actually read & respond' Group of wealthy Americans write open letter asking to be taxed more Inslee unveils plan to fight fossil fuel pollution MORE (D-Mass.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinRepublicans, Trump Jr. signal support for embattled West Virginia governor Critics say Interior's top lawyer came 'close to perjury' during Hill testimony The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump takes heat for remarks on help from foreign governments 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 ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissRepublicans say Democrats holding up disaster relief as 'Sandy payback' Ex-House Intel chair: Intel panel is wrong forum to investigate Trump's finances The Hill's Morning Report - Trump budget reignites border security fight MORE and Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonVA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump 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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley raises concerns about objectivity of report critical of GOP tax law's effects Overnight Health Care: Key Trump drug pricing proposal takes step forward | Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic loses bid for license | 2020 Democrats to take part in Saturday forum on abortion rights Key Trump proposal to lower drug prices takes step forward 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 GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreDowney: Why I returned stolen campaign material — a lesson for Donald Trump Trump campaign considering making a play for blue state Oregon: report What I saw at the last impeachment: Rules are for little people 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.