Skip to content

FEC Deal Breaks Down

The Federal Election Commission will remain dormant for at least a few more weeks after private negotiations between the White House and Democratic Senate leaders devolved into a political standoff Wednesday.

According to sources familiar with the discussions, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Bush administration could not agree to a deal before Memorial Day that would impanel five nominees to the FEC, as well as numerous other appointees to executive branch agencies, commissions and boards. The breakdown means the FEC may sit idling for several more weeks, if not months, becoming a major problem for candidates in a critical presidential election year.

The stalemate over those appointments also means Reid will keep the Senate in a series of pro forma sessions over the upcoming recess to prevent President Bush from sidestepping Senate confirmation and appointing those nominees to their positions while Senators are out of town next week.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the Majority Leader refused to agree to confirm any other White House nominees by Memorial Day unless the FEC goes first, saying it must be the priority.

Manley said that Reid “wants a fully functioning FEC” and isn’t interested in advancing scores of Republican nominees for other boards and commissions unless that election panel is put in place first.

But White House officials counter that the Democrats are insisting on seating the FEC on their terms by dictating who the Republicans’ replacement will be for Hans von Spakovsky, the controversial former Justice Department lawyer who served as a recess appointee on the FEC but recently withdrew his candidacy for a longer appointment.

Reid wanted Republicans to renominate outgoing FEC commissioner David Mason — a nonstarter for the Bush administration since Mason has been known to side with the FEC’s Democratic members.

One senior administration official said that if the White House had agreed to Reid’s proposal, it would amount to an “imbalance on the FEC.” Mason, plus the Democrats’ three picks, would essentially give Democrats a working majority on the commission, this official said.

“Basically, they told us they will move no noms unless we agree to that 3-to-2 ratio,” the official said.

Plus, the White House said it already extended an olive branch on the FEC stalemate earlier this week when von Spakovsky withdrew his nomination. Von Spakovsky’s selection was fiercely opposed by Democrats and had been stalled in the Senate for some time.

On Monday, the White House asked Reid to consider approving three pages of largely benign executive nominees — whose terms would all expire at the end of Bush’s term — as part of a pre-recess package.

In exchange, Bush would hold off on making any “recess appointments” while Senators are away for the weeklong break.

Reid then came back with his FEC proposal, in which the Majority Leader offered to renominate Mason (who was initially installed by Bush), confirm two of the GOP’s new selections in Don McGahn and Caroline Hunter and two of the Democratic selections, Cynthia Bauerly and Steven Walther. McGahn, Hunter and Bauerly all went before a Senate committee Wednesday.

Only one current FEC commissioner, Democrat Ellen Weintraub, remains in place.

Asked about the state of the nominations talks, White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said: “We’ve proposed a reasonable nominations package that would allow numerous Republican and Democrat nominees to be confirmed by the Senate.”

“We are hopeful that the Senate will choose this offer over more political gamesmanship that does not serve our country well,” she said.

But Manley said it was ridiculous for Democrats to accept the White House proposal because it failed to include any Democratic picks. Reid has been hoping to win confirmation of a series of his nominees for a number executive posts, including his one-time chief of staff Susan McCue to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, but has met Republican resistance.

Manley said that it is the Bush administration that is playing games and that if the administration was serious, it would work with Democrats to ensure the FEC is back in business.

“The fact is we could have been done with the FEC situation months ago if Senate Republicans and the White House had been willing to negotiate in good faith,” Manley said. “They need to deal with the fact that von Spakovsky was never going to be confirmed.”

The latest standoff between Senate Democrats and the Bush administration over executive branch nominations makes it increasingly likely that few federal vacancies will end up being filled later in the Congress. Democrats are banking on winning the White House in November, a victory that would give them the authority to fill innumerable openings throughout the executive branch.

Plus, Reid has said he won’t install any more Bush appointees whose terms expire after his presidency ends next January.

On a more practical note, the Senate will once again be forced to keep the lights on during the Memorial Day recess next week. Reid has made a regular practice of keeping the Senate operating in a series of nonvoting, pro forma sessions during the breaks to stave off any controversial recess appointments from the president.

Reid has said he learned his lesson a year ago when Bush used the April 2007 recess to put several controversial nominees in place, including Republican donor Sam Fox as the ambassador to Belgium.

Since then, while the Democrats and White House have continued to negotiate nominations deals, they have rarely been strong enough for Reid to gavel the chamber out entirely.

Recent Stories

We all became Bob Graham

On Senate floor, Mayorkas impeachment sparks procedural clash

Senate dispenses with Mayorkas impeachment without a trial

Steve Garvey: Not the next Jim Bunning

Capitol Lens | Former Sen. Bob Graham, 1936–2024

Foreign aid supplemental unveiled in House; Biden supports