Confirmation for patent nominee to wait until next year

Any hopes for Senate confirmation of President Obama's nominee to head the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before Congress adjourns are fading.

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With less than a week before Congress breaks, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyHigh stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Grassley raises voice after McConnell interrupts Senate speech MORE (R-Iowa), said everyone knows there is not enough time to confirm Michelle Lee, who was nominated in October.

He questioned the timing of Lee's first confirmation hearing on Wednesday, asserting another hearing would have to be held next year when he takes over the gavel and new members join the committee.

"I think 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," Grassley said.

The Iowa Republican, however, signaled his support for her confirmation, applauding her credentials a number of times.

Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph Leahy‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire How the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal MORE (D-Vt.) said if that is the case, the panel should get "moving" on the nominations immediately when the new Congress returns in January, noting the position has been open for nearly two years.

Grassley called the request "reasonable" but said he did not want to get ahead of the schedule.

Lee, a former lawyer and patent head for Google, serves as deputy director for the patent office. She currently has the responsibilities of director, however, since the agency has not had a confirmed leader since January 2013.

Daniel Henry Marti, the nominee to be the president's Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, also faced questioning. The committee leaders had previously pressed Obama to nominate a new coordinator since that position has been vacant since August 2013.

During questioning, Lee vowed to hold employees accountable if they are found to abuse the office's large telework program, which had come under fire recently after reports that some patent examiners lied about the amount of time they worked.

"If there is abuse of the nature we are talking about [and] heads don't roll, nothing really changes," Grassley said.

She noted that the abuses occurred before she led the office, and people were previously fired. She said she would not hesitate to take similar action in the future. The office has already made a number of reforms, Lee said.

She also faced questions over ways to cut back on "patent trolls," companies that make a profit from buying patents to license to others or by negotiating settlements after threatening patent infringement lawsuits. She said she is open to legislation, movement through the courts and through the executive branch.

Patent reform legislation stalled in the Senate earlier this year after leadership declined to take it up on the floor.

"I look forward to continuing that work in the new year," Leahy said, noting Grassley has signaled a willingness to continue the effort as the chairman next year.

Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTrump praises law enforcement response to shooting at Illinois business Five dead in shooting at manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire MORE (D-Ill.), however, questioned whether reform is moving too fast, asserting a number of industries have said the process needs to slow down because the patent landscape is changing dramatically through the courts.

"I think we should definitely be keeping our eye on that, because as I said, the patent landscape is very dynamic. There are lots of changes occurring," Lee said, noting that the assumption that the patent litigation rate is declining is based on only looks at a limited timeframe.

Lee said the largest priority for the office is issuing high-quality patents, while reducing the backlog, which remains at more than above 600,000. However, that number decreased by about 150,000 since 2009, despite an increased demand.