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In September 2010, President Barack Obama announced the nomination of New York lawyer Caitlin Halligan to replace John Roberts on the D.C. District Court of Appeals. Halligan waited for more than a year as her file made its way through the Senate. Finally, just before her nomination was about to expire in December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) brought it to the floor for a vote. Republicans promptly launched a filibuster, putting an end to Halligan’s chances of serving on the most prestigious federal appeals court.
In all, 181 of Obama’s nominees are waiting to be confirmed, including his picks for director of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Under Secretary of the Energy Dept., and Comptroller of the Currency. Seventy-four are sitting on the Senate calendar, almost twice as many as George W. Bush had at the same time in his first term, the White House complains.
Naming Richard Cordray as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during the Senate break was the President’s way of short-circuiting the process. Most nominees aren’t as fortunate as Cordray or the three new members of the National Labor Relations Board, also installed while lawmakers were away. All four have the full authority that comes with a Senate-confirmed position—but only until the end of 2013, when the next Congress is sworn in and they are required to go through the process all over again.
Even though Obama’s party controls the Senate, only 57 percent of his 2011 nominees were approved according to congressional statistics, compared with 67 percent of those Bush put up for confirmation from 2007 through 2009. (Democrats controlled the Senate then as well.) Democrats don’t have enough seats to stop a Republican filibuster, and the threat keeps them from putting the picks up for a vote. “It is becoming more and more apparent that Republican obstructionism is an overtly political maneuver to thwart the President’s agenda,” says Obama spokesman Eric Schultz.
Sometimes a nominee’s time runs out. That happened to William Boarman, chosen to head the Government Printing Office. His recess appointment expired last month. Sometimes a candidate withdraws. Obama appointed Dr. Don Berwick, a pediatrician and Harvard Medical School professor, to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in July 2010 while the Senate was in recess. His appointment was set to expire at the end of last year. When it became clear in November that Republicans planned to oppose him, Berwick resigned rather than face certain defeat.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), calls the White House’s argument “pure spin,” noting that as a senator, Obama participated in the filibuster that blocked Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination. Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman, concedes that Democrats used stalling tactics under Bush. Still, he says, “The level of obstructionism is unprecedented.”
The bottom line: The Senate hasn’t confirmed 181 of Obama’s nominees, leaving a swath of high-level vacancies across government agencies.