The Senate was able to make some temporary progress on tax policy over the weekend. The chamber had far less success on filling lingering vacancies.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Saturday afternoon blocked more than 50 judicial and executive branch nominees, demanding assurances that President Obama not make recess appointments during Christmas break.

Republicans are wary of Obama appointing a director to the new agency tasked with implementing Wall Street reform during the congressional recess. […]

“We are ready and willing to move forward, by consent, with a package of nominations to positions in both the executive and judicial branches,” McConnell said. “Just as soon as I receive confirmation from the administration that it will respect practice and precedent on recess appointments, we can get these people confirmed.”

Or to reword this in a slightly more accurate way, “We are ready and willing to release some of the hostages, just as soon as I receive confirmation that we get to keep the rest of the hostages for next year. We can certainly let some of these people get on with their lives.”

It is certainly of interest that McConnell is still worried about recess appointments. It’s a concern that reflects an unstated realization — the widely-held assumption has been that pro-forma sessions would simply prohibit President Obama from making recess appointments, but if that were true, McConnell wouldn’t be seeking assurances from the White House about an option that doesn’t exist. As we discussed two weeks ago, there’s reason to believe Obama can make recess appointments anyway, and the Senate Minority Leader apparently sees the same presidential opportunity. Otherwise, McConnell wouldn’t be awaiting “confirmation” of anything.

But in the bigger picture, it’s important not to overlook — or become inured to — the severity of McConnell’s abuses. We’re talking about Senate confirmation of qualified officials to serve in important government posts, who would be confirmed easily if given a vote.

McConnell has decided to use his position to block majority rule and refuse to allow the votes to take place. Why? Because he wants President Obama to promise not to make recess appointments.

In other words, because the Senate Minority Leader says so, the Senate won’t be able to complete its legal responsibilities unless the president agrees not to use his legal authority.

The ability of the Senate to function, completing basic and routine tasks, is now dependent on the whims of the Minority Leader. When he’s satisfied, McConnell will then, and only then, graciously allow the institution to do its duty on pending nominees.

The Senate wasn’t designed to work this way; it didn’t used to work this way; and it can’t work this way.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.