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Bush Recess Picks Could Hurt Other Nominees

President Bush’s surprise decision last week to use his recess appointment powers to install three highly controversial nominees could have lasting implications for legislative efforts on Capitol Hill and could make moving even noncontroversial nominations more difficult, Democrats warned Friday.

Lawmakers late last week were still digesting Bush’s Wednesday recess appointments — including making GOP donor and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth benefactor Sam Fox ambassador to Belgium — but Democrats argued that it significantly will erode their already tenuous relationship with the Bush administration, particularly coming on the heels of the scandal over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

“You have to question why the White House would squander what’s left of [Bush’s] political capital when there are so few rewards from recess appointing someone like Sam Fox,” one senior Democratic aide said Friday, adding that it is “a maneuver that won’t be long forgotten on Capitol Hill … [with the] potential of causing the White House additional heartburn.”

But a GOP Senate aide dismissed Democrats’ complaints, arguing that Reid and other party officials have made no serious efforts to move beyond partisan politics all year. “Yeah, that’s what caused it, it wasn’t the [Democrats] calling the president ‘incompetent,’ a ‘loser’ or ‘dangerous.’ It wasn’t the constant harping on his poll numbers or attacking his credibility. So they’re right, everything was fine until he appointed an ambassador to Belgium. Right, and [presidential hopeful Rep. Dennis] Kucinich (D-Ohio) has a shot at the White House, too,” the aide said.

Since the start of the 110th Congress, the White House has submitted 197 names to the Senate for confirmation for a variety of executive and judicial branch positions, ranging from District Court judgeships to positions on the board of directors for the United States Institute of Peace. While dozens of slots have been confirmed by the Senate, the vast majority remain pending either in the committees of jurisdiction or the full Senate.

Democrats predicted last week’s nominations will likely mean some of those nominees will face an uphill battle to gain confirmation. One Democratic aide pointed out that the recess appointments of Susan Dudley to head the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and Andrew Biggs as the deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration could be particularly damaging.

Biggs’ nomination had been stalled in the Finance Committee, where Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and other Democrats had concerns with Biggs’ previous advocacy for a wholesale dismantling of New Deal-era social welfare programs, starting with the Social Security program. Baucus said Wednesday that “prospects for getting real Social Security reform anytime soon just took a big hit with this recess appointment.”

Likewise, the senior Democratic aide said Bush “poked [Sen.] Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) in the eye” by appointing Dudley to OMB. Lieberman, whose Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over the nomination, had planned to move the nomination out of committee. Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips in a statement issued Wednesday said the “decision to recess appoint Susan Dudley shows disrespect” for the Senate’s role in presidential nominations.

Lieberman has been one of Bush’s only Democratic allies on Capitol Hill on homeland security and war issues, and Democrats said the decision to circumvent his authority was particularly shocking and claimed it shows the depths of Bush’s unwillingness to work with Congress.

Combined with the Justice Department scandal, Democrats also warned that the recess appointments could have implications for legislation.

In addition to Baucus’ warning on Social Security, a major area that could be hurt by a deterioration of relations is immigration. A senior White House aide said Wednesday — before the announcement of the appointments — that while the administration and Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) were at odds over the U.S. attorney firings, Leahy and Bush had a good working relationship on immigration reform. The aide pointed out that the during the week before the recess the two had held a lengthy phone conversation to discuss the latest round of efforts to craft a bipartisan compromise on immigration. The two sides had been able to “dual track” the U.S. attorneys issue and the immigration fight, the aide said, a dynamic this source had said could last until electoral considerations bring Capitol Hill to a crawl early next year.

While a spokesman for Leahy could not be reached for comment Friday, Democrats said the growing evidence of what they view as a lack of respect for the legislative branch could have serious implications for the immigration debate and other issues before the Senate. The past few weeks have demonstrated a “pattern of how not to do things on Capitol Hill,” one Democratic aide said.

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