WASHINGTON — The Obama administration and its allies are formulating ways to take maximum advantage of last week’s change in the Senate’s filibuster rules to rapidly confirm more than 240 judicial and executive nominees awaiting approval.
Democrats hope to break a logjam in President Obama’s appointments, allowing him to push ahead with key parts of his agenda. But they also acknowledge the political environment remains difficult, with many procedural tactics still available to Republicans intent on blocking nominees.
Top priorities for the Obama administration include the confirmation in December of Jeh Johnson as secretary of homeland security, Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve, an administration official said. Obama also hopes for quick confirmation of three nominees to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which was at the center of the Senate fight, the official said.
White House aides and their allies said they have yet to finalize plans for how to push through an additional 186 executive nominees and 50 judicial nominees awaiting confirmation in the Senate. Decisions about how to move forward rest with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., they said.
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“There is no document; there is no blueprint,” said Robert Raben, a prominent Democratic lawyer close to the administration. “In terms of a strategy, everybody’s blinking really hard.”
Senate Democrats weakened the filibuster rules by a 52-48 vote Thursday. Under the new rules, executive-branch and most judicial nominations will require only 51 votes to proceed rather than the 60 required for legislation and Supreme Court nominations.
White House and Senate Democratic officials cautioned that breaking the personnel gridlock that has defined much of Obama’s presidency could remain difficult even with the change. “We will move the folks who are stalled, but it’s not within our power to rush them through,” said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson.
Patricia Millett, one of Obama’s three nominees for the D.C. Circuit court, is expected to be confirmed shortly after the Senate returns from Thanksgiving recess Dec. 9, officials said. Reid is expected to reconsider two other court nominees, Cornelia Pillard and Robert Wilkins, soon thereafter.
Overall, 189 Obama executive nominees are awaiting confirmation in the Senate, including 85 for Cabinet-level agencies, and their nominations have been pending an average of 140 days, according to White House statistics.
There are 53 Obama judicial nominations moving through the Senate, 17 of which are awaiting votes on the floor. On average, Obama’s nominees waited almost 100 days longer to be confirmed than President George W. Bush’s judicial picks, according to Congressional Research Service data distributed by Senate Democrats.
Republicans in the minority, outraged by the Senate Democratic push to change the rules, could use a number of procedural tactics to slow confirmations to a crawl.
In an early sign of ill feelings, Republicans late Thursday would not agree to confirm a slew of low-profile nominees by unanimous consent, as is customary in the Senate before an extended break, according to senior Democratic aides.
Other delaying tactics at the minority’s disposal include blocking committees from holding meetings or denying the quorum required to move nominations to the floor by refusing to attend committee meetings.
On the Senate floor, there is an exceptionally cumbersome process to move nominees through to a final vote, eating up precious floor time.
Under the new rules, there can still be 30 hours of Senate debate on each appeals-court and Cabinet-level nominee. Nominees below Cabinet level get eight hours, and district-court nominees get two hours. That means the Senate floor could be locked up for an entire day — with no other business conducted — over a single nominee.
For judicial nominations, senators can hold up approval of nominees from their home states by refusing to submit a “blue slip” approving the choice. Ten pending judicial nominees have not had a Senate hearing because their home-state Republican senators have not returned their blue slips, an administration official said.
Republicans have not indicated which delaying tactics, if any, they might use, but they signaled a desire to seek revenge. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Democrats will “have trouble in a lot of areas because there’s going to be a lot of anger.”
McCain suggested the change could spoil other efforts, such as to ratify a United Nations-backed disabilities treaty that would put most of the world on a par with U.S. policy. Ratification requires 67 votes, and attempts to pass the treaty fell short last year. Supporters had hoped that would change.
On nominations, Raben said, the change in filibuster rules means political fights are more likely to take place at the committee level.
“Background investigations, courtesy visits, hearings and committee markups around nominees take on heightened importance because once it gets to the floor, absent a horrific fact about a nominee where significant numbers of the majority won’t defend it, it’s only a matter of time,” Raben said.
Obama’s aides said the president hopes the change in filibuster rules will get business back to usual, allowing him to staff his administration and fill the federal judiciary with nominees of his choosing without delay.
“The president obviously welcomes that decision, but it’s not going to change what he does,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “His whole focus is on making sure that there are qualified nominees on the bench getting the work done that needs to be done in our judiciary, and making sure that there are qualified individuals filling senior positions in the executive branch.”
Russell Wheeler, an expert on federal courts at the Brookings Institution, said many of Obama’s 53 pending judicial nominees are considered fairly middle-of-the-road.
“I can’t look at this list and say that it’s going to make a great deal of difference, that there’s a revolution coming,” Wheeler said.
Material from McClatchy Newspapers is included in this report.