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Republicans won't budge on secret holds on Obama nominees

By Ted Barrett, CNN Congressional Producer
Secret holds "have become a reprehensible part of the process here and need to end," Sen. Dick Durbin says.
Secret holds "have become a reprehensible part of the process here and need to end," Sen. Dick Durbin says.
  • Senate Democrats seek approval of nominees they say GOP is blocking
  • Republicans don't deny holding up process, argue it's allowed by Senate rules
  • Democrats say secret holds keep Obama administration from being able to effectively govern
  • Republicans say Democrats use the same tactic

Washington (CNN) -- Frustrated Democrats went to the Senate floor Friday to seek Republican approval for a long list of administration nominees currently blocked by controversial secret holds placed by GOP senators.

But a Republican senator objected to each of them as they came up.

"Most of the people on the list, we don't know why they're sitting there. We don't even know who's making them sit there," complained Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, who is spearheading Democratic efforts to banish secret holds. "Enter stage left, the anonymous hold. Or as I like to call it, nobody can blame me cause they don't know who I am."

McCaskill said the delay in approving these nominees is particularly agonizing because most of them passed out of committee with little or no opposition.

"If there is a legitimate complaint or grievance against any nominee, I think any senator has a right to be heard and appeal to the body for a vote," Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat, said Thursday. "But secret holds, I think, have become a reprehensible part of the process here and need to end."

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, was the lone Republican on the floor Friday during the nearly two-hour debate on the issue. He objected to Democratic requests to approve the nominees not because he personally opposes them but "as courtesy to people on my side of the aisle who have problems with some of these nominees."

Coburn said Republicans have a right to a public debate on nominees they oppose and Democrats are trying to get around that by seeking unanimous consent to quickly confirm them.

In fact, Coburn won praise from McCaskill because she said he is the only Republican senator who has made his holds public.

Democrats are especially upset because they think most Republicans are getting around a Senate rule adopted three years ago that requires senators to make public their holds once they've had them in place for six legislative days.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, called the practice "hold-laundering," which is when senators rotate a secret hold off to one another before hitting the six-day trigger for making their names public and thereby keep a hold in place indefinitely.

Republicans don't deny using the method but argue it's allowed by Senate rules which could be changed if Democrats want.

"If they think the rule needs to be tightened up they can offer to change the rule," suggested a GOP leadership aide.

In fact, Democrats said an effort is under way to offer an amendment to the financial regulations bill currently on the floor to shorten the six-day window to two days.

Democrats complain the secret holds keep the Obama administration from being able to effectively govern and point to one nominee, Michael Huerta, to be the No. 2 official at the Federal Aviation Administration, as an example of a key appointee stalled by an anonymous senator.

At a news conference on Thursday, Durbin said that Republicans that day had finally lifted a hold and approved the nomination of a top National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official only after feeling pressured because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"If they're going to move this appointee ... because of an oil spill, what does it take to move the deputy administrator of the FAA in charge of air safety," Durbin asked. "Fill in the blanks."

Asked about Democratic concerns over the issue earlier this week, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky acknowledged, "We've always had a challenging environment in the Senate with regard to the confirmation of executive branch appointments. This administration's been treated about the same as previous administrations in terms of the pace of confirmations."

Democrats disputed that notion and cited figures suggesting Obama's nominees are moving slower than George W. Bush's at this time in his presidency.

A top Republican senator accused Democrats also of using rotating holds.

"What I have run into in trying to get a bill or an amendment in the Senate in the past is the same practice," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the fourth-ranking Republican in the Senate. "Where the Democrats would have a hold on it and you try to trace it down and you kind of have an idea of who it might be and you go to them, [they respond] 'No I don't,' and nobody ever knew because it was just rotated around."