WASHINGTON — President Obama’s latest Cabinet-level nominees are running into deep resistance in the Senate, pitching Democrats and Republicans into another tense standoff over White House appointments.
Just days after Republicans used Senate rules to block two nominees in committee despite the fact both have the support of a majority of senators, Democrats are planning to force committee votes without Republican consent.
If Democrats push the nominees through to the full Senate, they would almost certainly set off a Republican filibuster, which would jeopardize the confirmations and, for now, leave vacancies at the top of two federal agencies.
Republicans have objected to the nomination of Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), citing what they said were her insufficient responses to their questions. They have also sought to block the labor-secretary nominee, Thomas Perez, a lawyer in the Justice Department, on the grounds he is too political.
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A third nominee, Penny Pritzker — a wealthy hotel heiress and a top Obama fundraiser — has run into resistance since Obama put her name forward this month to be the next commerce secretary. Republicans are promising to scrutinize her family’s financial dealings, including the family’s use of offshore accounts to reduce taxes.
Nominees at all levels of the federal bureaucracy — 117 of them in all, including Cabinet secretaries, judges and members of obscure oversight boards — are facing delay. Last week the Senate confirmed David Medine to lead the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The time between nomination and confirmation was 510 days. Every Republican voted no.
The shrinking number of senators from both parties willing to cross the aisle combined with the growing appeal of adding a “no” vote on a presidential nominee to a political résumé have contributed to the slowdown.
A first wave of the president’s second-term nominees to key positions — secretary of defense, secretary of the Treasury and director of the CIA — faced intense scrutiny in the Senate but were eventually confirmed after a bruising process that left members of both parties exhausted. Then the backlog seemed to ease.
But Republicans have resumed an effort to hold up many of the president’s choices, often by burying them in paperwork. One tactic that has become a favorite is submitting hundreds of written questions that the nominees are obliged to answer.
McCarthy received nearly 1,100 written questions from Republicans, according to White House records. Perez received 200. Jack Lew, who was confirmed as Treasury secretary in February, got 395. (By comparison, Henry Paulson, who served as one of President George W. Bush’s Treasury secretaries, received 81 questions: 49 from Democrats and 32 from Republicans.)
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Republicans were being unreasonable and were ignoring the president’s prerogative to name like-minded appointees.
“Eleven hundred questions were submitted to her,” Boxer said last week, gesturing to the empty seats in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee room where her Republican colleagues would usually sit. They had all boycotted the meeting in objection to McCarthy.
“We just had an election,” Boxer went on. “And this isn’t Mr. Romney’s Cabinet, or Mr. Rick Perry’s Cabinet. This is Barack Obama’s Cabinet.”
Even more contentious nomination fights loom. The director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, intends to step down in September. The nominee to replace him will almost certainly face tough questions in light of the revelations that the bureau may have missed signs that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were a threat.
And at least one Supreme Court justice is likely to retire before the end of Obama’s second term.
The partisan acrimony has led both sides to make unusually shrewd use of the Senate’s esoteric rules. Because Boxer’s committee was unable to hold a vote on McCarthy’s nomination — its rules state that at least two members of the minority party must be present for a quorum — she says she will use her own procedural trick.
It works like this: Even if every member of the minority party is absent, committees can hold votes if all members of the majority are present. This has been a problem for Democrats because one committee member in their party, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, is ill and has not been in Washington, D.C., in recent weeks. So Lautenberg plans to travel to Washington for a meeting Thursday, giving Democrats the quorum to force a vote that pushes McCarthy’s nomination to the Senate floor.
A spokesman for Senate Republicans, Don Stewart, said Boxer would be setting a dangerous standard by disregarding the concerns of the minority party. He also warned the same tactic could be used in reverse when Republicans control the Senate.
Republicans, who have 45 votes, point to the Democrats’ use of the filibuster to block Bush’s judicial nominees when they were in the minority. “This is not historic, this is not unprecedented, this is not new,” Stewart said, adding that Republicans had every right to have their questions — even 1,100 of them — answered.
Republicans have found canny ways to block votes. In an especially adroit move last week, they stopped Perez, the labor-secretary nominee, from receiving a committee vote by objecting to a routine procedural motion on the Senate floor that is almost always agreed to unanimously. Their objection set off a rarely used rule that prevents committees from meeting while the full Senate is in session.
Democrats plan to move ahead with a committee vote on Perez on Thursday by scheduling their meeting before the Senate has convened, thereby denying Republicans the chance to object.
“My Republican colleagues can try every trick in the book,” Sen. Harry Reid, of Nevada, the majority leader, said last week. “I assure you Mr. Perez will have his day in the Senate. I assure you Ms. McCarthy will have her day in the Senate.”