Senate Dems play recess hardball to bar Bush appointments
Sen. Jim Webb probably never had an easier day of work in his life.
The Virginia Democrat, serving as the Senate’s presiding officer, gaveled an empty Senate chamber to order promptly at 9 a.m. Nov. 20.
His first duty? He declared the Senate closed for the day only 22 seconds later.
The workday was a “pro forma” session — a tactic the Democratic majority is using to prevent President Bush from making personnel appointments while Congress is out for its two-week Thanksgiving layoff.
The Senate normally must approve presidential appointees for top federal posts. But if the chamber is in recess, the Constitution gives the president authority to fill vacancies without congressional approval.
The appointees can serve without confirmation until the conclusion of the congressional session. The current session ends January 2009.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he called the pro forma sessions because the Bush administration had informed him the president would be making recess appointments during the current congressional layoff.
“I’d much rather be doing this than allow the president to skirt the confirmation process in the Senate,” Mr. Webb said. “It’s totally appropriate for me to get dressed up this morning, come in here, bang a gavel and preserve the constitutional process.”
Democrats were particularly fearful that without pro forma protection that Mr. Bush would use the recess to appoint Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr. as U.S. surgeon general.
Dr. Holsinger, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, has been criticized for a paper he wrote in 1991 that said homosexual sex posed higher risks of disease and bodily damage than heterosexual sex.
Senate Democrats have refused to bring up Dr. Holsinger’s nomination.
The Bush administration has criticized the Democrat-controlled Senate for stalling on some 190 pending presidential appointments. The list includes high-profile nominations such as Robert A. Sturgell for administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Ed Schafer for secretary of agriculture, James Peake for secretary of veterans affairs and several key posts in the Justice Department.
“With 190 pending appointments, it’s obvious Congress has failed to complete its important work,” White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said. “Since the Senate has decided to come back in session every three days, we encourage them to make the most of their time by holding hearings and votes on pending nominations.”
Mr. Reid said he has offered to confirm several of Mr. Bush’s appointments if the president agreed to some Democratic appointments, but that the White House rebuffed his proposal.
“While an election year looms, significant progress can still be made on nominations,” Mr. Reid said. “But that progress can’t be made if the president seeks controversial recess appointments and fails to make Democratic appointments to important commissions.”
Mr. Bush previously has used his executive power to make recess appointments that angered Democrats. He named John R. Bolton as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during a congressional recess in 2005, bypassing a Democratic filibuster that had blocked Mr. Bolton’s nomination.
In 2004, Mr. Bush used a congressional recess to fill the post of ambassador to Belgium with Sam Fox, who during the 2004 presidential campaign helped finance the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth advertisements against Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry.
Other presidents have done the same, including President Clinton, who named James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg after Republicans blocked his confirmation because he is openly homosexual.
Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, served Nov. 20 as the Senate’s presiding officer — for just 22 seconds.