When it comes to a president's nominees, the Senate's traditional role has been to advise and consent. But lately with Senate Republicans, it's been more like chastise and dissent.
The seating of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown cost Democrats their filibuster-proof majority, and GOP senators are wielding their new clout to block President Obama's picks. The president is now threatening to exercise a power Democrats prevented his predecessor from using: recess appointments.
Senate nomination battles are not normally the stuff of late-night TV humor. But The Daily Show's Jon Stewart couldn't resist poking fun earlier this week at Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL).
"He is 75 years old, he is reputed to be a representative of Al-Abama," Stewart said, pronouncing the state's name as if it were an Arabic word, "and ... he has put what is known as a blanket hold on all of President Obama's nominees, meaning the Senate cannot vote to confirm them. "
Shelby did place holds, which are threatened filibusters, on 47 of Obama's nominees. His spokesman said the senator did it out of concerns over an air tanker contract that could benefit his home state and a bomb analysis center in Alabama for which he obtained an earmark. Shelby has since lifted those holds, except for three Pentagon nominees. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says many other holds remain.
"I mean, it's disgraceful. The Republicans are holding these people up for reasons that have nothing to do with the background, morality, competence of these people," Reid said. "They're just holding them up, just, they want to hold them up."
Alabama's other Republican senator, Jeff Sessions, says Democrats placed holds on some of former President Bush's nominees, and they should not point a finger of blame at Republicans.
"Sometimes the president is slow to make nominations," Sessions said, "and the result, we get complaints, 'It's Republicans' fault,' and it's just not. If we have an objection, a serious objection, that should be respected, we should state it, and we should bring it to the floor, and let's discuss the nomination, as is occurring with Mr. Becker."
That would be Craig Becker, a lawyer for organized labor whom Obama first nominated 10 months ago for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board. That panel, which oversees labor disputes, should have five members, but it has had only two for the past two years, after Democrats blocked Bush nominees for vacancies. Arizona Republican John McCain put a hold on Becker's nomination.
"If this — Craig Becker's — nomination is approved, we will see the undermining of longstanding practice in labor law," McCain said. "That should be the prerogative of the United States Congress."
Earlier this week, Reid tried breaking McCain's hold on Becker by holding a procedural vote to bring up his nomination. Two conservative Democrats joined every Republican who voted in blocking the nomination, and it fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to move ahead. Obama has the power to appoint Becker and other stalled nominees while the Senate is in recess next week, and he said Tuesday he's considering doing so.
"If the Senate does not act to confirm these nominees, I will consider making several recess appointments during the upcoming recess," Obama said, "because we can't afford to allow politics to stand in the way of a well-functioning government."
During the last two years of the Bush administration, Democrats kept the president from making recess appointments by keeping the Senate technically in session during recesses. Republicans can't do the same to Obama, though — not unless they regain control of the Senate.