But some Republicans say stonewalling could be counterproductive if officials fill administration posts in an “acting” capacity without Senate review.
WASHINGTON — When Senate Democrats in 2013 drastically weakened the ability to filibuster presidential nominees, it seemed like they were creating a glidepath for a president whose party controlled the Senate to speed through confirmations.
But as President Trump and Senate Republicans are learning to their great displeasure, that was not the case. Instead, a new kind of delaying tactic was born, one meant not to block a particular nominee but to snarl the Senate and limit the number of people who can get confirmation votes.
The barrier, as employed by both parties, is at the heart of an escalating fight over the pace of confirmations and the Trump administration’s ability to fill jobs. With the health care debate temporarily postponed, the focus now will shift to the conflict over nominations.
Because of their 2013 change, Democrats cannot indefinitely block nominees since procedural objections can be overcome with a simple majority vote instead of a supermajority of 60. But they can prolong the process to an excruciating degree and are doing so in many cases, giving Senate Republicans and the White House fits.
Republicans calculate that at the current rate, it would take 11 years and four months to fill all possible Trump administration spots at an average of three-and-a-half days spent considering each nominee.
“Not allowing the administration to take over the government is the wrong thing to do,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership. “It is unacceptable. It’s outrageous. Something has to change.”
Here is what is happening: Democrats are requiring that Republicans check all the procedural boxes on most nominees, even those they intend to eventually support. That requires the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, to request a formal “cloture” vote to move forward.
An “intervening day” is then required to allow the cloture request to “ripen.” Next is a vote to impose cloture followed by 30 hours of “post-cloture” debate before a final vote. Democrats have refused to shorten the debate time – to “yield back” in the parlance of the Senate – though in most cases there is little to debate.
In the end, many Democrats end up voting for the nominee, as each of them did last week on a federal appeals court judge from Idaho.
“The level of obstruction exhibited by Senate Democrats on these nominees is just breathtaking,” Mr. McConnell said Monday as he castigated Democrats again for forcing “needless procedural votes on nominees they actually support.”
Republicans engaged in similar procedural combat after Democrats made the 2013 change, tying up the Senate to slow President Barack Obama’s push to fill judicial vacancies.
“We became pretty good at it ourselves,” acknowledged Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican. But he and other Republicans say Democrats are employing the tactic to a much greater extent to clog up the Senate and handcuff the Trump administration.
Democrats have required cloture votes on 31 of 52 nominees approved so far. To be sure, the Trump administration was slow to begin making nominations for top jobs. But there are currently almost 50 people ready and awaiting Senate action, including national security officials who will face votes this week. More than 200 Obama administration nominees had been confirmed at this point in 2009, according to the White House.
Democrats are not denying that they are slowing the process to protest how Senate Republicans have handled the health care bill. It’s also payback for the way Republicans forced through some early nominees without proper paperwork.
“As we’ve made clear to our Republican colleagues, if they continue to insist on ramming through a secret health care bill without any public input or debate, they shouldn’t expect business as usual in the Senate,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.
In objecting to a request last week to speed up approval of high-level Pentagon nominees, Mr. Schumer said: “Maybe once things change a little bit on health care, with the consent of my colleagues on this side of the aisle, we can move a lot of things quickly.”
Democrats blame some of the holdup on self-inflicted wounds by the White House since the administration was slow to put forward names and withdrew others. They also say that Mr. McConnell has the option to keep the Senate in session more days to advance nominees.
Before the Senate became a venue for nearly nonstop partisan warfare, senators would routinely approve most lower-level nominees by voice vote, rarely insisting on the full slate of procedural steps when the outcome was a given. But those days appear to be gone.
Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican of Tennessee who has sought to streamline the nomination process, said he fears the blockade will encourage the White House to give up on confirmations and instead leave top posts filled with officials serving in an “acting” capacity without having undergone review by the Senate.
“We have never had a situation where several hundred key officials who run the government have not been examined by, and held accountable to, the United States Senate,” he said. “It makes the president more powerful and the Congress less powerful, and it gives the people less say into who the president is appointing, and what they are doing and how they conduct themselves.”
He said that while it might seem like smart politics for Democrats to stall nominees of a president they strongly oppose, they are actually “shooting themselves in the foot” by giving the White House incentive to bypass the Senate.
The ongoing clash is the latest development in a nomination process that has become politically poisonous in recent years, scarred by regular filibusters, two “nuclear” explosions altering the rules and a refusal to even consider a Supreme Court nominee. This latest chapter holds the potential for more long-term damage to both the Senate and the government across the board.