The refusal of Senate Republicans to allow a vote on two of President Obama’s nominees Thursday may or may not signal the end a truce hammered out months ago to avoid the “nuclear option.”
What’s certain, though, is that neither Sens. Deb Fischer nor Mike Johanns have any problem voting against Obama’s nominees. This year has brought a long stream of “nay” votes on presidential nominees from the two Nebraskans.
Both voted to block the nominations of U.S. Rep. Mel Watt to be director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Patricia Millett to be a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
During her freshman year in the Senate, Fischer also voted against the otherwise successful nominations of:
Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense, Jacob Lew as secretary of the Treasury, John Brennan as CIA director, Richard Cordray as director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, Thomas Perez as secretary of Labor, Regina McCarthy as EPA administrator, Bryon T. Jones as director of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Elaine Kaplan as a judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, plus all four of Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
Johanns, meanwhile, has been only slightly more disposed to vote in favor of the president’s nominees. He supported the nominations of Lew and fellow Nebraskan Hagel, but voted with Fischer against the rest.
Notice a theme? Most of these people were appointed to a body with a GOP hot-button word in their names: firearms, labor, consumer protection, environment.
Standing out from this list is John Kerry, president Obama’s choice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of State. Fischer and Johanns both supported the choice of Kerry, but it is rare for a nominee who is a sitting member of Congress not to be confirmed for a presidential appointment.
It is so rare, in fact, that Mel Watt on Thursday became the first member of Congress to be blocked from a presidential appointment since the Civil War. The two Republican senators who broke ranks to vote for Watt were Rob Portman of Ohio and Richard Burr of Watt’s home state of North Carolina.
Watt has represented North Carolina in the House since 1992. He is a graduate of Yale University’s law school and a veteran member of the House Financial Services Committee. The Federal Housing Finance Agency oversees the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Republicans said Watt was too political, but Senate Republicans also blocked President Obama’s last nominee to run the same agency. There were no explanations for the votes on the Senate websites of either Fischer or Johanns on Thursday.
Democrats currently have only 55 members, meaning they need the votes of at least five Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster or pass a measure requiring a two-thirds majority.
Thursday’s votes might motivate Senate Democrats to reconsider the “nuclear option” rules change that would allow nominations to be confirmed with only 51 votes. Vice President Joe Biden, who was in the Senate on Thursday to swear in its newest member, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, said he supported the change.
In a statement after the votes, Majority Leader Harry Reid also seemed to signal a willingness to reconsider the rules change.
Last summer, Democrats were so frustrated with the inability to advance executive branch nominees, that they began considering the nuclear option. It was dropped when Senate Republicans agreed not to block non-judicial appointees and then voted on several Obama nominees.
“I will exercise my right as Majority Leader to reconsider these nominations at some point in the very near future,” Reid said in his statement Thursday. “I hope my Republican colleagues will reconsider their continued run of unprecedented obstructionism. Something has to change, an I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation.”
Republicans wasted no time repudiating the idea of a rules change, generally describing the possibility as an unprecedented power grab.
Update: In the Nov. 1, 2013, edition of the Omaha-World Herald, Joseph Morton quoted Johanns as saying that the D.C. court’s workload did not justify another judge and that Watt was not qualified for the job.
“The level of sophistication in terms of working with the financial sector — I just didn’t see it,” Johanns was quoted as saying. ” This is one of the most complex jobs in the federal government, it truly is, and it deals with trillions of dollars. Personally, I wouldn’t be qualified for such a job.” (See: Senators derail two Obama nominees, Nov. 1, 2013, omaha.com)