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Nominations Put on Ice

Ratcheting up the pressure on the confirmation process, Senate Democrats have officially declared a blockade of all executive branch and judicial nominations.

Calling the nominating process “broken,” Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) announced Friday that the only way President Bush can get his nominees moving again is by guaranteeing that he will not make any more judicial recess appointments and by formally nominating a couple dozen Democrats to various boards and commissions.

Daschle’s broadside brought immediate rebukes from Senate Republicans, who charged Daschle with poisoning the process by leading filibusters of a handful of GOP nominees and indirectly suggested that the only way the White House will move Daschle’s desired appointments is if the Minority Leader were to allow votes on the filibustered nominees.

Labeling the latest nomination stalemate “blatant, partisan obstruction,” Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) spokesman said the two leaders are continuing to talk about ways to break the logjam, but contended Democrats needed to take the first step.

“An up-or-down vote on the president’s judicial nominees would be a good start,” said Frist aide Bob Stevenson.

Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) also said that Daschle would have to give in to some of the Republican demands if any resolution of the issue is to come in the next few weeks.

“They’ll solve it one way or the other,” Hatch said of negotiations among Frist, Daschle and the White House. “But they’re going to have to resolve it so it’s beneficial to both sides.”

Daschle and Senate Democrats contend the White House has taken partisan steps of historic proportion with the recent recess appointments of two judicial nominees who had failed to win confirmation because of Democratic filibusters.

“These actions not only poison the nomination process but they strike at the heart of the principle of checks and balances that is one of the pillars of American democracy,” Daschle said in a floor speech Friday, culminating weeks of behind-the-scenes talks with Frist and the White House on the issue.

Daschle said the process would get moving again “only if the White House gives the assurance that it will no longer abuse the process.”

The decision to launch the nomination blockade was made by the Democratic Caucus at Tuesday’s luncheon, according to Senators and aides. Daschle had met with Frist more than two weeks ago, before the St. Patrick’s Day Senate recess, and again last Monday to deliver an ultimatum that he would block all nominees unless his demands were met.

In his Friday floor speech, Daschle accused Bush of trying to accumulate “unrestrained executive power” and effectively notified Frist of his intent to filibuster any Bush nominee.

“They have broken the process, and we want to fix it,” he said.

In what Daschle himself called a “less visible” dispute, the issue of Democratic slots on an array of boards, agencies and commissions has emerged as a particular sore point between the two parties.

Traditionally, these commissions are made up of an odd number of slots, usually five, with two spots being picked by Congressional Republicans and two by Congressional Democrats. The fifth, or tie-breaking, slot goes to the White House, giving whichever party controls the executive branch de facto control over those agencies and commissions.

Democrats contend that more than 20 of their choices for spots on such panels have either been rejected or delayed, and not for the usual precedents of problems coming up in FBI background checks. One Democrat who had been pushed for a spot on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Board, Warren Stern, was rejected because he did not have “enough scientific background,” Daschle said Friday.

Stern, according to Daschle, has degrees in physics and nuclear energy and was a senior coordinator for nuclear safety at the State Department.

“Whether it is a nomination to a board, or to a lifetime appointment on the federal bench, we cannot allow the Senate’s role to be disregarded,” he said.

These positions have been enveloped in pitched partisan battles in the past, including a tilt involving former Daschle aide Jonathan Adelstein’s nomination to the Federal Communications Commission. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was minority leader in 2002 when Judiciary Democrats rejected his friend Charles Pickering for a spot on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, struck back at Daschle by holding up Adelstein’s appointment to the FCC in the spring and summer of 2002.

Pickering, who was renominated by Bush in 2003 but faced a Democratic filibuster, received a recess appointment in January.

Adelstein’s reappointment to the FCC has also languished this spring amid the partisan bickering.

Republicans privately bristle at Democratic complaints about how they have filled the minority’s slots on boards and commissions, noting that many prominent Democrats have been nominated in recent months by Bush.

Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), one of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) most assertive attack dogs on the presidential campaign trail, was nominated and confirmed to a spot on the Export-Import Bank. Likewise, in early February an aide to Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was nominated to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the objections of the nuclear industry, and a supporter of Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) received a nomination March 2 to the National Transportation Saftey Board.

Infuriating opponents of abortion, Bush also nominated Barbara Sapin, a legal counsel to the National Abortion Federation, to a spot on a board overseeing merit programs in the federal work force.

In addition to the half-dozen filibusters of judicial nominees launched by Democrats, Republicans complain that Bush’s executive nominees have not been treated fairly, either rejected by Democrats when they controlled the chamber or just blocked procedurally.

Eugene Scalia, the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, was approved in committee in 2001 to be solicitor general of the Labor Department but Daschle — at the urging of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — refused to bring Scalia up for a vote. Eventually, Scalia received a recess appointment, served a brief tenure at Labor and returned to the private sector because he couldn’t win a full confirmation.

“They’ve been holding up hundreds of White House people since day one,” Hatch said.

As of late Friday, no talks were scheduled this week with Frist, Daschle or the White House, or on the staff level, to resolve the dispute.

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