Unprecedented obstructionism

UNPRECEDENTED OBSTRUCTIONISM…. In the Clinton era, Senate Republicans blocked a lot of the White House’s judicial nominations. In the Bush era, Senate Democrats blocked votes on some would-be judges, too. But as Doug Kendall explains today, we’ve never seen anything quite like the new levels of Republican obstructionism.

It seems clear that Senate Republicans are prepared to take the partisan war over the courts into uncharted territory — delaying up-or-down votes on the Senate floor for even the most qualified and uncontroversial of the president’s judicial nominees…. Over the past several decades, senators in both parties have used an escalating set of procedural tactics to block confirmations, particularly near the end of an out-going president’s term in office. To date, however, the tit-for-tat game has played out within a fairly narrow category of nominees who are deemed controversial. While there has never been an agreed-upon definition of what that means — it’s an eye-of-the-beholder type of thing — there has consistently been a large category of nominees that are not considered controversial.

Despite all this, Senate Republicans still won’t give Obama’s judges a vote. The three Obama judges confirmed to the lower courts — Gerald Lynch from New York and Jeffrey Viken from South Dakota in addition to Lange — each spent weeks pending on the Senate floor and endured a confirmation process that lasted more than three months. Two additional nominees, Andre Davis of Maryland and David Hamilton of Indiana, cleared the Senate judiciary committee way back on June 4 — 144 days ago. Yet their floor votes are still pending.

Davis and Hamilton have spent longer in this particular form of limbo than any Bush nominee confirmed from 2007-08.

Kendall describes this as “unprecedented and dangerous.” It not only leaves vacancies on the bench, clogging the federal courts, but it also discourages qualified, uncontroversial jurists from even accepting nominations in the first place, knowing that the Republican minority won’t give them a fair shake. Prospective judges realize that they can have a skeleton-free closet and plenty of support to be confirmed, but can wait indefinitely for a vote, simply because the GOP feels like it.

And it’s not just judicial nominees. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, pointing to the difficulties of responding to the global flu pandemic, recently noted that the Senate isn’t allowed to vote on a surgeon general, because Republicans refuse to let Regina Benjamin’s nomination come to the floor. “We are facing a major pandemic, we have a well-qualified candidate for surgeon general, she’s been through the committee process. We just need a vote in the Senate,” Sebeilus said late last week. “Please give us a surgeon general.”

Benjamin was unanimously approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Oct. 7, but the Senate minority has decided to block all HHS nominees, flu pandemic or no flu pandemic.

People for the American Way reported last week that between 1949 and 2009 — spanning 11 presidents — there were 24 nominees on which cloture was forced. In the first nine months of Obama’s first year in office, there have been five, meaning Senate Republicans on track to force more cloture votes on more Obama nominees than practically every modern president combined.

And that doesn’t include the secret and not-so-secret holds.

The Senate isn’t supposed to be this dysfunctional.