February 11, 2013

With Chuch Hagel’s nomination scheduled to get through the Armed Services Committee tomorrow, the next step of Republican obstruction will be an effort by Senator Jim Inhofe and others to delay Senate floor action on confirmation. Inhofe, Robert Costa reports, is putting a hold on the nomination:

“I’ll do that for as long as it takes,” he says, firmly. “I’m going to make sure there is a 60-vote margin.”

“Hagel may be passed out of the committee, but it’s going to be a long, long time before he hits the floor,” Inhofe says. “We’re going to need as much time as possible, and there are going to be several of us who will have holds.”

So we need to talk about holds. A “hold” is simply a request from any Senator for a bill, or in this case a nomination, to not be brought up. The Majority Leader can choose to honor that hold or not. There’s no formal Senate rule at all governing it. Majority Leaders typically honor holds partly for general reasons of comity between Senators.

Holds on nominations really don’t have much to back them up, at least as long as the majority has 60 Senators committed to supporting cloture on confirmation, which appears to be the case with Hagel. And comity is a two-way street; trying to block a nominee for Secretary of Defense when the United States is at war, and when the minority doesn’t have the votes to even sustain a filibuster (much less defeat the nominee by majority vote) is hardly a hallmark of comity.

What all of this means is that Harry Reid really needs to draw a line in the sand on this one. If Inhofe and his friends have some sort of legitimate reason for postponing the vote until a date certain, Reid should consider it; if they want plenty of real debate time on the nomination, he should grant it. But that’s it.

I happen to be all for legitimate holds on executive branch nominations; if a Senator has some narrow issue on which he or she seeks to influence the workings of some agency by using a nomination as leverage on behalf of some constituency, I think that’s very clearly within the proper functioning of the Senate. There is absolutely no reason, however, for a small group to be able to defeat — or even to excessively delay — a nominee just because they don’t like him. If they have the votes, fine; if not, the nomination should be brought to the floor and cloture invoked.

This one is going to set the pattern for the 113th Congress. If Harry Reid wants a functioning Senate, he’s going to have to draw a line somewhere against all the obstruction. This is as good a time as any for him to remind Republicans that Democrats actually have a substantial majority in the Senate and they’ll use it — however they need to — to keep the government running smoothly.