Republicans’ holiday spirit doesn’t extend to Obama nominees

Al Kamen
Columnist December 8, 2011

For most folks, the holiday season is a time for serious shopping. In the Senate, it’s a time for heated and nasty negotiations over nominations — and the clock is ticking.

The Obama administration and Senate Democrats lost a bitter fight Thursday over the nomination of former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — the new Wall Street watchdog — when they failed to end a GOP filibuster. Obama indicated he may make a one-year recess appointment for Cordray.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Battles continued over three ambassadorial nominees already serving overseas as recess appointees. They will be required to leave their posts at the end of the year if they aren’t confirmed.

One, Mari Carmen Aponte, appointed in August 2010, is heavily backed by Latinos — especially Puerto Ricans — and has strong support from both major Salvadoran parties. (She even persuaded El Salvador to send troops to Afghanistan.) Former CIA officer and Bay of Pigs veteran Felix Rodriguez has been working hard on her behalf.

But she was approved in committee on a party-line vote and faces strong opposition from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) — in part for an op-ed she wrote opposing discrimination against gays. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) moved late Thursday for a vote Monday afternoon to break the hold.

The second nominee, Norm Eisen , who’s been ambassador to the Czech Republic since last December, had strong conservative support in committee. The Czechs are unhappy at the notion of not having an ambassador. Many conservative foreign policy heavy hitters — including Bush administration aide Jamie Fly , National Review editor John O’Sullivan , and Randy Scheunemann , a former top aide to GOP Sens. John McCain and Trent Lott — are backing him, but this one, too, is a tossup for the moment. Reid also moved for a vote to break the hold on Eisen on Monday afternoon.

Career Foreign Service officer Matthew Bryza ’s nomination to stay on as ambassador to Azerbaijan is strongly opposed by the American Armenian community, which argues that he is biased toward the Azeris on the issue of a disputed territory. Senior Democrats, including Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.), opposed his nomination last time around — Obama gave him a recess appointment a year ago — and are opposing him this time. (Smart money is trending heavy against confirmation.)

Another key ambassadorial nominee, Stanford professor Mike McFaul , who’s now National Security Council senior director for Russia, is being held up by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). Kirk is concerned about giving the Russians classified information on missile defense. Both sides may be able to work through the concerns. After all, it might be worth having someone in Moscow these days.

Teddy’s recess play

Speaking of recess appointments, this week — Dec. 7, in fact — marks the 108th anniversary of the most audacious recess-appointment maneuvers ever.

“At high noon” on Dec. 7, 1903, writes Senate associate historian Betty K. Koed, the Senate president pro tem brought down the gavel to end one session of the Senate and then said, “The Senate will now come to order.”

“In that moment between sessions,” Koed noted, “during that split -second of time it took . . . to wield the gavel, President Theodore Roosevelt made 193 recess appointments.”

“There was but one fall of the gavel,” a newspaper reported, “but one stroke, but one sound.” Even senators in the chamber didn’t know there’d been a recess — or, as Roosevelt most creatively put it, a “constructive recess.”

Senators of both parties were furious and launched an investigation into what, under the Constitution, constitutes a recess.

We’re told the answer remains most ambiguous to this day. The more recent consensus is that, to be in recess, the Senate must be gone for more than three days. But that’s based only on a 1993 Justice Department analysis in a lawsuit — not a law or a Supreme Court ruling.

So if Obama, who talked about T.R. this week in Kansas, were really channeling the 26th president . . .

No cuts in the forest

Smokey Bear lives! The Forest Service mascot — famous for instructing generations of schoolchildren that only they could prevent forest fires — took a frightening turn on the House Republicans’ chopping block.

The slash to the Forest Service’s conservation-education budget was proposed under House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s YouCut program, in which the public can vote each week in favor of various budget-trimming plans.

But Smokey and his pal Woodsy “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” Owl managed to duck the ax.

The public chose instead a rival budget-cutting proposal that would eliminate payments to states that increase the number of food-stamp beneficiaries.

As a Cantor spokeswoman tells us, “Even Smokey the Bear knows you can prevent government waste.” So Smokey fans can breathe a sigh of relief.

That score again: Adorable fictional woodland creatures 1, hungry poor people 0.

Facing the skeptics

Newt Gingrich didn’t win over the 65 or so conservative leaders who met privately with him Wednesday morning at the Key Bridge Marriott, but he didn’t do himself any harm, sources said.

Gingrich came in for combative questioning from a very skeptical audience. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli led off, saying that many see Gingrich as a big-government conservative when what those in the room want is small government.

Others questioned him on environmental issues — the Nancy Pelosi love-seat ad for climate change still rankles. Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute challenged Gingrich’s support for the Endangered Species Act. Veteran political strategist and Reagan administration official Don Devine challenged him on his support for the prescription drug bill.

And there were questions about whether he could win if President Obama went after his “personal life.”

Gingrich, pledging that he would have conservatives like them in his administration, apparently parried the questions fairly well, managing a standing ovation when it was done — but not from everyone.

“Did it satisfy everyone?” asked publisher and direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie , who helped put together the closed-press meeting. “Probably not.” But Gingrich “didn’t lose anyone.”

Hey, this is a tough crowd: very weary of being courted — and then jilted.

With Emily Heil

Twitter: @intheloopwp

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