Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SFRC Approves Nominations

On March 31, the Committee on Foreign Relations held a business meeting to consider eight nominations and seven pieces of legislation. The Committee favorably reported, by voice vote, the following nominees and pieces of legislation:


  • Esther Brimmer to be Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs
  • Karl Eikenberry to be Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
  • Timothy Geithner to be U.S. Governor of the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Fund, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
  • Philip Gordon to be Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs
  • Rose Gottemoeller to be Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance
  • Christopher Hill to be Ambassador to the Republic of Iraq
  • Richard Verma to be Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs
  • Melanne Verveer to be Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues

Read the whole statement here. The nominations will now go to the full Senate where all are expected to be confirmed. Ambassador Hill whose nomination was in the news a lot, is reportedly also expected to get the 60 votes in the 100-member.

Meanwhile, Fox News just reported on the reaction from the senator from Kansas "Brownback said he is not yet ready to place a hold on the nomination but he is "exploring other options just short of that."

Update 4/1/09 10:30 AM: I should note that the Democrats only have 56 seats plus 2 Independents who caucus with them in the Senate. That's still short of the 60 votes. As to the other options the senator is talking about, below is a memo from Harry Reid's office reprinted by Ryan Grim back in February that is instructive:

How Cloture Rule Allows Minority To Block Legislation Without "Actual Filibustering"

Under the 1917 rules change the very nature of the filibuster changed. Whereas before any Senator could block any bill by simply talking, this was no longer true. A cloture motion could stop a Senator from talking. At the same time the addition of this procedure added the ability of the minority to block bills without filibustering merely by voting against cloture.

Since the 1950's true filibusters (i.e. Standing on the floor and talking for ever), have been used, more often than not to delay the inevitable, or to block last minute action that the minority party does not like. For example the when Strom Thurmond filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours 18 minutes, the bill was eventually passed.

The last modern filibuster occurred in 2003 over some Judicial nominations. Harry Reid held the floor for nine hours where he read Searchlight (his first book) and I am not kidding, discussed the relative virtues of wooden matches.

Very technically if a single Senator wanted to employ every delay tactic possible, he could stall a single piece of legislation for a week and hold the Senate hostage, not allowing them to conduct any other business. This is basically the threat of the hold. Then the Senate needs to determine first will the Senator carry out the threat, can they be bought off, or is the bill worth a week of the Senates times. Hence a lot of important but minor bills get killed this way.

The byproduct of the cloture rule changes in 1917 and 1974 is you need to invoke cloture to proceed to a bill. Senators don't have to speak to vote against cloture. If you can't get 60, you can't move it to the floor. On the motion to proceed, if a Republican chose to get up they can speak about any topic they want, or they can sit down and begin an endless series of quorum calls. Or they can begin motions to proceed on their own set of bills.

Basically there is no way to force a Senator to speak or vote on any particular bill and if you can't get 60 you can't proceed to final passage.

The "PR Value" Of Making The Minority "Filibuster" For An Indefinite Period Of Time

It's true that if the Majority Leader doesn't file a cloture motion to cut off debate on the floor, the opponents of the bill which the Senate is on can continue to debate on it indefinitely. However, as mentioned in my previous email it will still not force them to do any kind of actual filibustering by forcing them to talk for unlimited hours (like we have seen in the movies).

Again, if someone wants to obstruct a specific piece of legislation, he/she can be forced to sit on the floor to keep us from voting on that legislation for a finite period of time according to existing rules but he/she can't be forced to keep talking for an indefinite period of time.

As explained above a Senator doesn't need to talk for an indefinite period of time to sustain a "filibuster" under existing rules. All he or she has to do is suggest the absence of a quorum when no one has any more to say on the specific legislation he or she is trying to delay. If someone comes in and wants to speak to give that Senator a hand, he lets them call off the quorum and speak and then he puts another quorum call in. It only takes one member to keep that going, he/she can have colleagues spell them and work in shifts just making sure that if no one is speaking then the chair doesn't put the question, i.e. begin the vote on the amendment, by putting in a quorum call.

So, if anyone was expecting a Republican Senator could have been forced to stay up and speak for hours if not days obstructing the auto legislations or any other bill would most likely have been disappointed since it was a good bet that the Republican conference would have coordinated and keep the quorum calls going. As a result, the public would not see the Republicans out there filibustering they'd see a quorum call or, since after the first three hours of each day debate no longer has to be germane to the pending business, they may see a Republican senator speaking about anything they want.

So not sure how much of a PR value is there not filing cloture to cut off debate. If anyone thinks there would be a show for the networks for hours/days they would have been disappointed because after couple of hours the only thing for network and news media for cover would be some quorum calls.

So if the majority party tried to move to a vote, a minority senator could simply say, "I suggest the absence of a quorum." One option short of placing a hold?

Related Item: CRS Report: Cloture Attempts on Nominations (December 2002) pdf

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