Dems Decry Shelby’s Senate Hostage-Taking–But Did They Do The Same?

February 5, 2010 8:49 am

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has decided to place a hold on all pending executive branch nominees, and that has all of Washington asking: Who does such a thing?

A Senate leadership aide even says: “I am not aware of that ever happening.”

But it has happened. And perhaps the most recent perpetrator was none other than Harry Reid, before he became Senate Majority Leader.

“Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is increasing pressure to have one of his aides confirmed to a top post at the federal agency that will decide the Yucca Mountain Project,” reads a June 2004 article in the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Reid confirmed Monday that he will put a blanket hold on all of President Bush’s nominees for executive branch positions except for judges and defense appointees. He said he will hold up nominees and selected bills until his nuclear waste adviser, Gregory Jaczko, can be confirmed to join the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

‘He’ll get that job,’ Reid said. ‘It’s just a question of when, now or six months from now. Maybe it will be after Bush is defeated. Whether Bush is re-elected or not, Jaczko will get that job.’

Now there are a number of key differences between what Reid did and what Shelby’s doing. Reid’s hold, which contributed to a major roadblock of Bush executive nominees at the end of 2004, was driven by a longstanding policy conviction: Reid opposes using Yucca Mountain in his home state as a nuclear dumping site, and was trying to get a simpatico colleague confirmed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep the site protected.

Shelby is asking for billions of dollars in earmarks, and doing a fair amount of whining.

Separately, a top Senate aide points out that Reid’s hold excluded national security nominees. Shelby’s does not.

Thirdly, the Bush nominees were blocked at the end of Bush’s first term–hardly uncommon as a President’s term comes to a close. Shelby’s move comes toward the beginning of Obama’s presidency, at a time when his administration is severely understaffed…largely because Republicans have been stalling his nominees.

So blanket holds aren’t unprecedented. But they are rare–and according to a top Congress watcher, they rise to a higher level of obstruction.

“Holds are, of course, very common,” says Norm Ornstein. “But blanket holds are pretty damn rare.”

Ornstein suggested that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s next move would be to “call Shelby’s bluff” — bring the nominees to the floor despite Shelby’s promise to filibuster them. Since a hold is really just a promise to filibuster, Ornstein said, Shelby needs the 41 votes required to block cloture to actually implement it. Bringing it to the floor would force Shelby to prove he’s got the support to block the nominations.

“This only works if there’s a tacit conspiracy among the…Senators,” Ornstein said.

However, there’s also the matter of time. Each successful cloture motion causes a delay of several days. Multiply by 70-or-so nominees, and, if Shelby doesn’t relent, Reid couldn’t confirm all of them by the end of this Congress. Even if he stacked the votes back to back.

“The hold is basically a sort of extension of the casual use of the filibuster,” Ornstein said. “It wasn’t meant to be an individual veto, or something that would allow the nomination to linger for months…but like the filibuster, it’s morphed into something else.”

Additional reporting by Evan McMorris-Santoro.

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