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Recess Picks Still Open Question

White House Has No Shortage of Stalled Nominees

After showing last week that President Barack Obama is not afraid to defy GOP filibusters of his nominees, the White House is leaving the door open to more recess appointments — some of which could continue to help him showcase his campaign theme that he is the remedy to Capitol Hill’s gridlock.

Already having installed Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and appointed three National Labor Relations Board members, Obama could still choose to tap a number of stalled nominees in his effort to position himself as the champion of the middle class and consumers — the same theme struck in last week’s appointments.

While the White House isn’t talking about possible recess appointments, White House spokesman Eric Schultz suggested last week that GOP blockades of Obama nominations may continue to be fair game.

“We are not going to publicly speculate about recess appointments,” Schultz said. “But Senate Republicans have not been shy about their determination to block the president’s nominees and policy priorities. It is becoming more and more apparent that Republican obstructionism is an overtly political maneuver to thwart the president’s agenda. These posts are important to fill, these individuals are exceptionally well-qualified, and we will push for their confirmations.”

Schultz refused to discuss specific posts, but with 181 nominations pending in the Senate — many for six months or more — Obama has plenty of nominees from which to choose.

After last week’s move, speculation spread that Obama might replace Federal Housing Finance Agency Acting Director Edward DeMarco, who oversees mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Democrats have criticized DeMarco for stalling relief to homeowners, but the White House has given no indication that it would use a recess appointment to replace him. In 2010, Obama nominated North Carolina Banking Commissioner Joseph Smith to replace DeMarco, but Senate Banking ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) led the charge against Smith’s confirmation.

At his press conference in November announcing that he would retire from Congress, House Financial Services ranking member Barney Frank (D-Mass.) described DeMarco as “no great friend to the Democrats’ cause; Obama keeps trying to fire him, and the Senate protects him.”

Installing a new head of the FHFA could theoretically enable the president to dramatically expand mortgage refinancing for millions of homeowners before the elections — but that would surely create an even greater outcry from the GOP.

The White House has dismissed the prospects of a backlash on the CFPB and NLRB, arguing that Republicans would lose any battle if they blocked items the president wants — like the payroll tax cut extension — in a fit of pique over last week’s recess appointments.

The White House also has repeatedly noted the unprecedented nature of the Republican opposition to Cordray in particular, which is not based on his qualifications, but on their disapproval of how the CFPB is structured. Senate Republicans successfully filibustered Cordray last month.

The White House’s case is weaker on the NLRB, given that two of the nominations were made days before the Senate left town in December, meaning committees have not had a chance to hold hearings or force the nominees through the normal vetting process. But even there, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Republicans had made clear their intentions to stall the nominations, which would have left the NLRB without a quorum to function.

Other possibilities for future recess appointments include: Jeremy Stein, a Democrat, and Jerome Powell, a Republican, whom Obama recently nominated to fill two vacant seats on the Federal Reserve Board; Martin Gruenberg to head the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.; Thomas Hoenig to join the FDIC; and Thomas Curry to be comptroller of the currency.

While these nominations might proceed under the regular process, Obama’s decision to make the four recess appointments last week may have poisoned the atmosphere in the Senate for all nominations going forward. If Republicans decide to institute a blanket hold on all nominations, recess appointments could be the only alternative for the White House.

Sarah Binder, a historian of Congress at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the case could be made that these nominees are needed to help the economy recover from the recession and to regulate the financial institutions that helped bring it about — a message on which Democrats have been trying to capitalize as this year’s elections edge closer.

“One would think that recess appointments related to banking and housing regulators would fit the narrative,” Binder said.

Other recess appointment possibilities could help win favor with another important constituency — Hispanic voters. Those include Adam Namm to be ambassador to Ecuador and Roberta Jacobson to be assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere. Senate Republicans filibustered the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to be ambassador to El Salvador last month. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is holding up Namm’s and Jacobson’s appointments.

Matt Barreto, political science professor at the University of Washington and a principal at polling group Latino Decisions, said he could see such a move as “part of Latino outreach” efforts. But he also stressed that domestic and immigration issues would also play a critical role in Latino voter decision-making.

However, some believe that Obama will not likely pursue many more, if any, recess appointments.

Binder said that Cordray and the NLRB appointments seemed to be part of a limited strategy, and those nominees were “worth the heat” the White House received. A rash of recess appointments could undercut the White House’s argument that last week’s move was in response to extraordinary circumstances caused by unprecedented GOP obstruction.

Additional appointments also could run the risk of irritating Senate Democrats who do not want to erode the chamber’s “advise and consent” role on nominations.

A Senate Democratic aide said that there is nothing in the pipeline at the moment but also didn’t exclude the possibility of more White House recess appointments in the next few weeks or sometime this year. The Senate has not technically adjourned for recess, but the full chamber is not expected to be back in town until Jan. 23.

“We expect the president to continue to respect the Senate’s prerogative” on nominations, the aide said, adding that the White House has been “judicious” in its recess appointment strategy.

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