Policy

Nominations Fill Legislative Void in Senate

Work stalled in the chamber amid partisan health care and tax effort

Callista Gingrich, nominated to be Vatican ambassador, is one of many nominees awaiting a vote from the Senate. She’ll get hers on Monday afternoon. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Republicans have repeatedly accused the Democratic minority of slow-rolling the process of confirming President Donald Trump’s nominees for hundreds of vacant federal and judicial positions. But after engaging in a partisan agenda for most of this year, the GOP may need those confirmation votes just to fill up floor time in the chamber.

The major tenets of the Republican agenda are largely stalled, with the legislative health care effort in tatters and an overhaul of the U.S. tax code still in development.

As the GOP trudges along on the tax bill, nominations clog the calendar. After a vote Monday evening on Callista Gingrich’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, the Senate is scheduled to vote this week on the fiscal 2018 budget resolution, a necessary first step if GOP leaders are to continue with their plans to take up the tax measure under the expedited budget reconciliation process.

Republicans aides and lawmakers say there are several bills the chamber could turn to if nominations were not taking so much time.

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Democrats disagree with that assessment. Senators point to the GOP’s choice to use reconciliation to advance policy with only Republican support as the main reason why bipartisan work has ground to a halt.

“It appears that their attempt to do all this legislation behind closed doors, big major pieces of legislation, whether it’s health care or tax reform, has really brought this place to its knees in terms of productivity,” Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said. “They’ve been so focused on doing that behind the scenes that out in front of the curtain, there appears to be very little going on.”

In a chamber where 60 votes are needed to end the filibuster and launch debate on a particular piece of legislation, bipartisan agreement is a must. Republicans have 52 seats in the chamber.

What’s a Filibuster?

The partisan environment has stymied the chamber’s ability to advance consensus legislation, Democrats say.

“It doesn’t seem like they have anything else ready to come to the floor if not for nominations,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut said. “When you have all your members spending all their time behind closed doors, coming up with secret bills, it’s hard to move regular pieces of legislation through the process.”

As an example, Murphy cited legislation to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. Work on that effort foundered as Republicans focused on overturning major aspects of the U.S. health insurance system.

Funding authorization for CHIP expired at the end of September, and both chambers of Congress continue to fight over how to pay for its renewal.

An empty backbench?

Several Republican lawmakers were unable to say what legislation is ready for action on the Senate floor.

“That’s a good question. I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it,” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said with a laugh when asked.

Other members touted the tax package and health care legislation that Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is working on with Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the panel’s top Democrat.

“Tax reform is coming down, and I would like to see us do a series of health insurance bills to stabilize the market and lower premiums, so there is plenty of work that can be done,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said.

The problem? Legislative text is not available for either effort, a prerequisite for committee action that could take weeks.

Another possible big-ticket item lawmakers from both parties would like to see advanced is an infrastructure package. Work on that effort, however, has not begun in earnest and is unlikely to while the tax legislation is still alive.

Congress must also pass a measure to fund the government beyond Dec. 8. But few expect action on that front before the deadline.

A battle over policy riders could even elongate that debate, culminating in a government shutdown weeks before a scheduled holiday break.

Confirmation votes continue

In the meantime, confirmations are expected to dominate the floor schedule, with preference given to judicial nominees, the vast majority of whom will be lifetime appointees.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently signaled he is open to bucking the “blue slip” tradition of deferring to home-state senators on preferences for judicial vacancies, so it is possible some of those nominations could begin to advance at a faster clip.

Still, there are substantial vacancies throughout the federal government due to the pace of confirmations in the Senate — coupled with the Trump administration’s initially slow rate of sending nominations to the chamber.

Of 600 key executive positions requiring Senate confirmation, 277 are currently without a nominee and 165 have been formally nominated but not yet confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service. In the judicial branch, there are currently 150 vacancies across five courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Some recent confirmation votes have been for high-profile positions, like Eric Hargan to be deputy secretary of Health and Human Services — a position that meant assuming control of the department after Tom Price resigned as HHS secretary following revelations of his extensive use of airline charters for routine travel.

And there are several still remaining on the docket, like Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Other confirmation votes, however, have been for relatively minor positions that historically could have moved through voice vote, prompting outrage from the GOP.

Republicans were able to advance a large package of nominations in August, but that was due mainly to McConnell’s threat to cancel portions of the typically month-long recess.

With no similar leverage this time around and the partisan tax effort ongoing, McConnell will likely be forced to go through the standard floor procedure — including a cloture vote on many of the individual nominees.

“[The Republicans] control the nominations process, not us. All we can do is ask for debate, which is fully within our right,” Murphy said.

Complaints about the process are expected to continue.

“I filed cloture motions on four qualified nominees for various agencies throughout the federal government. I shouldn’t have had to,” McConnell said this month on the floor. “In different times, we may have even considered them via voice vote. But this is where we are, and now it’s time to advance and confirm them as soon as possible.”

In a signal that the argument has slim chances of resolution, Democrats point out that McConnell himself has made slow-rolling decisions in the past, refusing to consider the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland last year and passing on the opportunity to consider dozens of other nominations when Barack Obama was president and the Kentucky Republican controlled the floor schedule.

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