WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans, stripped of their ability to stop confirmation of almost all of President Barack Obama’s nominees, are putting the brakes on them instead.
Still bristling from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s move last month to muscle through the biggest change in three decades on presidential nominees, the chamber’s Republicans are demonstrating that they will retaliate by slowing consideration of nominees. They are aiming to clog the Senate calendar to prevent Democrats from advancing their legislative priorities.
“The Senate is not going to operate as smoothly as it potentially could or has,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
The renewed tension over nominees risks impeding progress in a chamber already slowed by divides. Senate Republicans Tuesday forced almost five hours of debate on Representative Mel Watt’s nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, after it was clear Watt had the votes to be confirmed.
The Senate voted 56-38 Tuesday to confirm Patricia Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, marking the first Obama nominee confirmed under the new rules. They later voted 57-41 to confirm Watt, a lawyer who has been in the House since 1992, to lead the FHFA, where he will oversee the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The delaying tactics are poised to play out over the remainder of this week.
“You can’t let the majority leader decide how to prioritize everything that happens in the Senate,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership, said following a lunch Tuesday where the party’s strategy on the rules was discussed. “It’s totally reasonable that some time — 8 to 5, three days a week — should be taken to get these nominations done.”
Burr, who supported Watt because of their home-state ties, predicted that the Senate no longer would be able to skip floor debates over confirmation of even noncontroversial nominees, as the chamber has done in the past.
Meanwhile, Republicans Tuesday used a parliamentary maneuver to slow Senate Finance Committee consideration of John Koskinen, Obama’s nominee to run the Internal Revenue Service.
Only two senators questioned Koskinen at Tuesday’s hearing before the session recessed. Republicans invoked a rule that bars committees from meeting more than two hours after the Senate starts work, which forced the hearing to resume Wednesday.
Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said Republicans may be expressing “resentment” after Democrats changed Senate rules to require a majority vote, instead of a 60-vote threshold, for confirmation of nominees except to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Democrats’ caucus has 55 senators.
The IRS, lacking a confirmed commissioner for more than a year, has been the target of Republican ire that exponentially increased after the agency acknowledged it applied tougher scrutiny to tea party groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said Koskinen’s nomination has been “caught in the web” of the squabble between the parties.
“If the Republicans don’t stand up and let them know that violating the rules like that is a very bad thing,” Hatch said, “then Republicans deserve the criticisms they get.”
Republicans “will use parliamentary procedures when we think it’s in our interest to do so,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican was was instrumental in striking an 11th-hour deal that avoided a July showdown over nominees.
“It won’t be a blanket thing,” McCain said. “We can slow it down,” he added, mentioning Watt’s confirmation as an example.
Watt, 68, was among a group of nominees that Republicans on Oct. 31 used the old rules to block, making him the first sitting member of Congress since 1843 to be denied a major executive-branch post. Reid has cited the move as the tipping point in his decision to alter Senate practices.
Once he is sworn in, Watt will be in a position to set and modify terms for the 50 percent of U.S. mortgages owned or backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are operating under federal conservatorship since being seized by regulators amid soaring losses during the 2008 credit crisis.
Watt said last week that he was insulted that Republicans questioned his ability to do the job.
“It’s hard to be insulted if you know it’s just politics, but when people start to say, ‘I’m doing this because he’s unqualified,’ then it is insulting and then you start to take it personally,” he said in an interview in the Capitol.
With the housing market recovery, Fannie and Freddie have begun posting record profits and sending billions of dollars in dividends to the Treasury. At the same time, Senate lawmakers are working on a bipartisan plan to wind down the companies and replace them as part of an overhaul of U.S. housing finance.
Investors including hedge funds have been buying the companies’ stock, once thought to be worthless, in a bet that lawmakers will instead return them to the private market. Watt’s job will be to set an interim course for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while their fate is decided.
He will replace FHFA Acting Director Edward J. DeMarco, a career bureaucrat who has focused on improving the companies’ bottom line and conserving assets for taxpayers. The companies received a $187.5 billion bailout from the U.S. Treasury after the government rescued them from the brink of collapse.
Watt is unlikely to be sworn in this week, as he has joined the congressional delegation traveling for the funeral of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second- ranking Democrat, said Republicans’ efforts to slow nominees put them in a “difficult position” to defend.
“They’re arguing at the outset, ‘We didn’t need a rules change. We were ready to cooperate and get these things done,’” Durbin said in an interview. “And now, when we bring up they names, they’re slowing them down, which is a mixed message.”
Meanwhile Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., faulted Reid for spending a whole week on nominations that he deemed nonessential.
“I question the way the Senate is being run,” McConnell told reporters. “Not only breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate but dealing with a whole series of nonessential nominations.”
He added, “With two weeks left before Christmas, my question is why are we doing what we’re doing?”