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Obama Moves on Stalled Nominees

Correction Appended

President Barack Obama acted Saturday to put in place some of his long-stalled nominees without a Senate vote, a move that Democrats said was urgently needed given that Republicans have shown no signs of backing off in blocking the president’s picks.

On the first day of the two-week recess, Obama named 15 recess appointees, saying he could no longer allow “months of Republican obstruction” to prevent the filling of key administration jobs. The appointees included Craig Becker and Mark Pearce, controversial nominees for the National Labor Relations Board.

The appointments mark the first time Obama has made a recess appointment, circumventing the Senate confirmation process. The appointees will be able to serve until the end of next year — and longer if the Senate confirms their appointments before then.

In making the appointments, Obama said, “The United States Senate has the responsibility to approve or disapprove of my nominees. But if, in the interest of scoring political points, Republicans in the Senate refuse to exercise that responsibility, I must act in the interest of the American people and exercise my authority to fill these positions on an interim basis.”

Conservatives have been particularly opposed to Becker, who serves as associate general counsel to both the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said: “This is a purely partisan move that will make a traditionally bipartisan labor board an unbalanced agenda-driven panel.”

But Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) praised the president’s move and said Obama administration nominations “have fared worse” in the Senate, thanks to GOP obstructionism, “than any other nominees in recent history.”

The issue of whether the Senate would act on the president’s nominees flared up before the Senate left on Friday, when Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) railed against Republicans for holding up a military nominee. Levin accused Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) of stalling the process as a way to help secure more hurricane recovery projects for his state.

“This is one of the purest forms of inappropriate obstructionism that I have seen around here. And as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, I’m just simply not going to stand by without trying my best to change this,” Levin said.

As of Friday, there were 84 nominations pending on the executive calendar, including some that have been lingering since May 2009.

Democratic Senators have routinely complained about the slow pace of clearing nominations over the past year, during which time Obama has not once used his authority to make recess appointments. They have been pressing Obama to take advantage of the two-week recess to clear some of the backlog — and to avoid the prospect of more holds on nominees by GOP Senators.

“I would not blame this president for doing what he needs to get his people in line,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said. “He needs to make up his own decision, but I haven’t seen this kind of obstruction in 15 years.”

“If Republicans say there’s no deal, then I think there’s a better case for recess appointments,” Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) said.

Democrats are feeling newly emboldened about moving forward without Republicans after passage of health care reform. Their success in clearing the overhaul without the help of a single Republican delivered a victory that they have sorely needed and showed they can get things done despite GOP filibusters.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said it is time for the president to use his authority to move nominees because there are “too many important candidates being held hostage.”

Becker’s nomination to the NLRB was one of the most controversial pending before the Senate. Republicans bitterly complained that Becker — a veteran of the labor movement who has worked for the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union — would abuse his position to enact provisions of “card check” legislation that allows unions to organize through a petition process.

In February, a procedural motion requiring 60 votes to advance Becker’s nomination failed, 52-33. Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) joined Republicans in voting against the measure.

Durbin said that while Obama may not want to make any controversial recess appointments, it is an ideal time to do it since Republicans have shown no signs of relenting in blocking even noncontroversial nominees.

“I would recommend it,” Durbin said of installing Becker with a recess appointment.

Similarly, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Obama “has little choice” but to make recess appointments since Republicans continue to block them by filibuster.

The White House was mum prior to Saturday on whether to expect any appointments over the two-week Congressional recess.

But some top administration officials signaled that patience was wearing thin with GOP delay tactics. White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod last week bashed Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) for “holding up … all of the president’s appointments” for political reasons.

“Those are the kinds of things that frustrate me. And frankly, I think they frustrate the American people,” Axelrod said on PBS’ “Charlie Rose.”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) took it a step further, calling it “absolutely inappropriate” that Republicans have held up nominees for slots that affect the country’s economic and homeland security.

“He’s got to consider using that power,” Conrad said of Obama’s executive authority.

Senate Republicans were already bracing for possible action over the recess. All 41 of them signed a letter to the president last week urging him not to recess-appoint Becker, saying it “would bypass the advice and consent traditions of the Senate.”

After Obama’s move Saturday on the 15 nominees, Republicans still have a list of possible recess candidates whom they strongly oppose. They include Mary Smith, a nominee for an assistant attorney general slot; Lael Brainard, a nominee for an undersecretary post at the Treasury Department; and Louis Butler Jr., a nominee for the District Court of the Western District of Wisconsin.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a staunch critic of Becker, warned of the effect that a recess appointment could have on Capitol Hill. “Recess appointments can be done, but they should be done sparingly — not to poke a finger in the eye of the opposition,” Hatch said. “If the president wants any bipartisan goodwill around here, he ought to think about that.”

Republicans have also highlighted that Reid has previously spoken out against the use of recess appointments. He kept the chamber in a pro forma session in 2007 to prevent then-President George W. Bush from clearing some of his controversial picks.

Correction: March 30, 2010

The article mischaracterized Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) objection to a military nominee. He was acting on behalf of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whom Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) accused of stalling the process.

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