WASHINGTON — The White House and its allies are formulating ways to take maximum advantage of last week’s change in the Senate’s filibuster rules to rapidly confirm more than 240 judicial and executive nominees awaiting approval.
Democrats hope to break a logjam in President Obama’s appointments, allowing him to push ahead with key parts of his agenda. But they also acknowledge that the political environment remains difficult, with many procedural tactics still available to Republicans intent on blocking his nominees.
Top priorities for the White House include the confirmation in December of Jeh Johnson as secretary of Homeland Security, Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve, according to a White House official. Obama also hopes for quick confirmation of three nominees to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which was at the center of the Senate fight, the official said.
White House aides and their allies said they have yet to finalize plans for how to push through another 186 executive nominees and 50 judicial nominees awaiting confirmation in the Senate. Decisions about how to move forward rest with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., they said.
“There is no document; there is no blueprint,” said Robert Raben, a prominent Democratic lawyer close to the White House. “In terms of a strategy, everybody’s blinking really hard.”
The presidential nomination process was pushed into uncharted waters after the Senate changed its rules to require a simple majority, rather than 60 votes, to confirm most nominees. White House and Senate Democratic officials cautioned that breaking the personnel gridlock that has defined much of Obama’s presidency could remain difficult.
“We will move the folks who are stalled, but it’s not within our power to rush them through,” said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson. “We will move them along in a timely fashion, but we didn’t give ourselves the power to move things faster. At the end of the day, it still has to be a fair vote. The hope is that filibustering these folks is futile and that people will do it less.”
Patricia Millett, one of Obama’s three nominees for the D.C. Circuit court, is expected to be confirmed shortly after the Senate returns from Thanksgiving recess Dec. 9, officials said. Reid is expected to reconsider two other court nominees, Cornelia Pillard and Robert Wilkins, soon thereafter.
Overall, 189 Obama executive nominees are awaiting confirmation in the Senate, including 85 for Cabinet-level agencies, and their nominations have been pending an average of 140 days, according to White House statistics.
There are 53 Obama judicial nominations currently moving through the Senate, 17 of which are awaiting votes on the floor. On average, Obama’s nominees waited almost 100 days longer to be confirmed than President George W. Bush’s judicial picks, according to Congressional Research Service data.
Republicans in the minority, outraged by the Senate Democratic push to change the rules, could employ a number of procedural tactics to slow confirmations to a crawl.
In an early sign of ill feelings, Republicans on Thursday evening would not agree to confirm a slew of low-profile nominees by unanimous consent, as is customary in the Senate before an extended break, according to senior Democratic aides.
Other delaying tactics at the minority’s disposal include blocking committees from holding meetings or denying the quorum required to move nominations to the floor by refusing to attend committee meetings.
On the Senate floor, there is still an exceptionally cumbersome process to move nominees through to a final vote, eating up precious floor time.
Under the new rules, there can still be 30 hours of Senate debate on each appeals court and Cabinet-level nominee. Nominees below Cabinet level get eight hours, and district court nominees get two hours.