While the Senate is near open warfare over minority party filibusters of judicial nominees, senators acting alone are blocking some of President Bush’s other choices for top government jobs with little protest.
Democratic senators have in place or are threatening to place “holds” on Bush’s nominees to head three key agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
In each case, the chokehold is being applied not to defeat the nomination but to raise an issue important to the objecting senator.
“I do this with a heavy heart and with much regret because I think Stephen Johnson is well qualified to head the EPA,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said in announcing his decision this week to block a vote on Johnson.
Carper said he was acting because the EPA and the White House had ignored his request for an analysis of the economic, health and environmental impact of his alternative bill to Bush’s clean-air plan.
His hold was a second shot against Johnson, a career EPA employee and otherwise non-controversial candidate for the top job. Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., lifted their hold on the nomination only after Johnson agreed to cancel a pesticide study in Florida involving children.
Among other recent delaying actions:
-Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., say they will block a vote on Lester Crawford to head the FDA until the agency decides whether to allow over-the-counter sales of post-sex contraceptives.
-Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., says he won’t allow a vote to confirm Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, as U.S. Trade Representative until Senate leaders agree to take up his bill on enforcing anti-subsidy laws against China and other non-market economies.
-Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., says he will block Treasury Department nominees because of recent department rulings that he says make it more difficult to sell farm products to Cuba.
Many Republicans are trying to change Senate rules so that judicial nominees can be confirmed by a simple majority rather than the 60 votes needed to overcome Democratic filibusters.
But Republicans also use holds when the political need arises.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose state is home to threatened military bases, last month blocked a Senate vote on the nominee to head a base closing commission. Bush circumvented the hold by appointing all nine members of the commission while lawmakers were on their Easter recess.
Alabama’s two Republicans senators, Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, said Friday they were blocking Bush’s choice for assistant secretary of the Army for civil works because they said the federal government was favoring Georgia in a decade-old fight over water.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., an opponent of holds, said they have become a “flagrant abuse of what was the historic basis” for the action, which was to put off a vote for a short time in respect to a senator who might be sick or need more information.
“It has now become one of the most powerful and least known tools in American government,” Wyden said. More often than not, he said, holds are placed anonymously so other senators don’t know who is preventing a nomination from going forward.
Wyden and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, are behind legislation that would make those who put a hold on a nomination do it publicly. “I’m going to continue this fight until there is a new day of openness and accountability,” Wyden said.
Sarah Binder, a Brookings Institution fellow who has testified to Congress on the issue, said there is no formal Senate rule on holds. They gained prominence because Senate leaders have increasingly turned to “unanimous consent” requests, which can be rejected with one dissenting voice, to advance legislation and nominees.
The Senate can overcome a hold through a time-consuming process and a motion requiring a 60-vote majority, but Senate leaders are reluctant to go that route in a 100-member body where interpersonal relations are so important.
“The hold is a mechanism to draw attention to what you really want,” Binder said. “Quite often it really works.”