Rancor eases in the Senate

Apr 10, 2012 By Larry Margasak, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- For a brief moment in a season of partisan rancor, the Democratic leader of the Senate and his Republican counterpart hit the pause button. As senators prepared to leave for their annual spring recess, dozens of nominees to important federal jobs were confirmed without debate or acrimony.

Majority Leader Harry Reid rattled off numbers from the Senate calendar that corresponded to individual nominees. In minutes, the nation had scores of new and reappointed ambassadors, senior Cabinet department officials and financial regulators.

"This is the way we ought to be conducting business," said Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

"This is the way we should legislate," agreed Reid, D-Nev.

Neither ruined the moment by stating the obvious: Partisanship had become so pervasive in the glacially moving Senate that nominees like these -- lacking even a whiff of controversy -- were held up for months. Both parties routinely blocked the other's nominees.

Nobody expects the good feelings to last, and when the Senate returns next week, a near party-line vote is likely to defeat a Democratic proposal for raising taxes on the wealthy.

Yet, the March 29 instant of comity is important, providing a glimpse of possible accomplishments when both parties in Congress and the White House work together.

One only has to return to Jan. 4 to see the Senate -- and perhaps the White House, depending upon your point of view -- at its worst.

That was the day President Barack Obama bypassed the Senate and used recess appointments -- allowed by the Constitution when Congress isn't in session -- to put four of his nominees in politically sensitive jobs.

Events leading up to Obama's end run date back almost a year.

Last May, 44 Senate Republicans told Obama they would block anyone as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless that person's power was diluted.

Senate Republicans also had been complaining about the National Labor Relations Board all through 2011. And in December, all 47 Senate Republicans signed a letter urging Obama not to fill any of three pending or upcoming vacancies on the five-member board, complaining that the agency was tilting too much in favor of unions through Obama's appointments. One of the three NLRB vacancies Obama filled Jan. 4 was a Republican.

Officials from both parties in Congress, the White House and organized labor discussed the whys of the face-off in January compared with the comity exhibited at the end of last month. They insisted on anonymity in order to discuss their thinking and their private discussions.

The key considerations that were present in January but not in March were:

- The inability of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board to function without the January appointees.

- Pressure both parties were getting from their political bases.

- The White House's refusal to pledge in advance not to do an end run around the Senate during the Christmas recess.

The Senate was so divided that the two parties couldn't even agree on whether there actually was a recess. The Senate was being gaveled into procedural sessions of less than a minute every few days, but almost all its members were away from Washington.

The four vacancies at the NLRB and for the new consumer bureau presented a dilemma to Obama.

He looked upon the consumer bureau as the crown jewel of a 2010 law overhauling how banks and other financial companies are regulated. But it couldn't issue regulations or begin policing everything from credit fees to mortgages and student loans until a director was in place. And the Supreme Court had told the NLRB it couldn't issue rules or render decisions in labor-management disputes with only two of five seats filled.

That suited pro-Republican business lobbyists just fine. They opposed the new consumer bureau as burdensome regulatory overreach and wanted to end a string of NLRB decisions in favor of unions under Obama's appointees.

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