Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and White House officials kicked off a fresh round of talks Tuesday to unlock dozens of stalled executive branch nominations, with both sides viewing the two weeks before the March recess as the best chance to reach a deal this year.
Officials in Reid’s office and the administration began the meetings to try to craft a broad agreement — to be ready before Senators leave town on March 14 — that would allow for Senate approval of numerous outstanding appointees viewed as critical to both Bush and the Majority Leader. If successful, a deal also could put an end to Reid’s near-regular practice of keeping the Senate in pro forma sessions during scheduled recesses to block Bush from installing controversial nominees while lawmakers are out of town.
Sources familiar with the latest discussions said Reid and the White House believe that if they don’t come to a meeting of the minds before the March break, the two sides might miss the chance to broker a far-reaching agreement this year. Even though Reid wants some of his own picks for the executive branch approved in the near term, Democrats also wonder how generous they should be in also approving scores of Bush’s picks since he is a lame duck with just a few months remaining in his tenure.
“The feeling is, if we don’t get a deal now, they don’t get a deal from us,” said one senior Democratic Senate aide.
That sentiment reflects the Democrats’ belief that they have the upper hand heading into the latest talks since Reid agreed Monday afternoon to push through confirmation of Mark Filip as deputy attorney general. Filip’s confirmation as the No. 2 at the Justice Department had been stalled in the Senate for weeks, and for a time he had been the subject of a hold by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Emily Lawrimore, spokeswoman for the White House, said Tuesday that Reid and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten spoke late last week and “pledged to have their offices work together to get as many nominations through as quickly as possible.” She added: “Right now, we’re optimistic we’re going to be able to work constructively to confirm both Republican and Democratic nominees.”
Filip is one of dozens of pending executive branch nominations viewed as essential to Bush. Those include several openings at the Justice Department and the Federal Reserve, which the White House has put atop its priority list.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Reid, said his boss agreed to move Filip through the Senate to show his willingness to work with the White House to reach an agreement on the stalled picks within the next couple of weeks. Manley said Reid remains optimistic a deal can be reached, given he’s had a “number of productive conversations with Josh in recent days.”
“We hope we can work together on a list on nominees in the days and weeks to come,” Manley said.
Like Bush, Reid also has crucial nominees of his own in play, including his recommendation that his one-time chief of staff, Susan McCue, sit on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and that another former aide, Gregory Jaczko, win approval for another term at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Reid also is pushing for an end to the standoff over the two parties’ picks for the Federal Election Commission and installment of his candidates for openings on the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Reid’s SEC picks, who have yet to be formally nominated while awaiting federal background checks, were part of a harshly worded letter the Majority Leader wrote Bolten last week urging an end to the war over nominees.
With that in mind, one senior Republican Senate aide warned against tagging the next two weeks as the only remaining chance for a nominations deal this year. This staffer said even if this month doesn’t bring about an agreement between the Democrats and the White House, Reid might still come to the table since his own candidates hang in the balance.
“Sen. Reid has his own set of high priorities,” the staffer reminded, adding that if the current set of talks break down, “they’ll continue to negotiate past the recess. This is not necessarily make or break. There’s no hard-and-fast, take-it-or-leave-it deadline.”
Whether the March deadline is real or perceived, several Democrats said the pressure is on to move now. The outcome could play out in several ways, they said, including with both sides agreeing to Senate approval of broad package of nominations, or possibly a series of smaller agreements involving both Democratic sand Republican selections.
The executive branch nominations imbroglio also is coinciding with, but is separate from, another brewing battle in the Senate over stalled judicial nominees. In recent days, Republicans have been trying to resurrect pressure on Democrats to get them to bring up votes on dozens of Bush’s stalled appellate and district court nominations, which GOP Senators charge are being slow-walked by Reid.
Asked Tuesday whether Democrats were close to reaching a deal with Republicans to move those court nominees, Reid was emphatic: “No. We’re not close.”
Being far apart also is familiar territory for Reid when it comes to trying to negotiate deals with the White House on the executive appointments.
In December, for instance, Bolten and Reid and their surrogates were locked in a series of intense talks that many believed would result in Senate approval of more than 100 outstanding appointees. But those talks fell short, and even though Reid agreed to push through numerous stalled appointments before Senators left town for the holidays, he also opted to keep the chamber operating in the pro forma, or nonvoting, sessions to prevent Bush from making recess installments.
One Republican source familiar with the renewed discussions between Reid and the administration said that while “talks just started,” there’s a general feeling that the negotiations are “more sincere” than the talks that have taken place over the course of the past year. Asked whether the two sides can come up with a lengthy package of nominations for the Senate to approve before the March recess, the source said: “It depends on how quickly they want to move. We want to move as quickly as possible.”