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The Fastest Gavel in the Senate

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

Vacationing in Rhode Island with his family over the weekend, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) cut short his holiday break and raced back to Washington today to be part of a Democratic line of defense against the White House.

All told, Reed's work today will likely last no more than 25 seconds. It's the latest effort made by a Senate Democrat in the party's months-long battle against President Bush's ability to make interim appointments while the Senate is on recess.

From the lowest-ranking freshmen to long-serving lions of the chamber, Democrats have queued up this holiday season to take turns overseeing pro forma sessions for the Senate. The Senate is considered to be in a pro forma session if a member officially gavels it open and then gavels it closed.

As long as these sessions are held at least every fourth day, the Senate is not considered in recess, and, therefore, Bush cannot make interim appointments to high-level posts that would otherwise require Senate confirmation.

Such interim appointments last only for the remainder of that particular Congress. But with just 12 months remaining in Bush's presidency, a recess appointment would last almost to the end of his term. So, when the Senate finished its legislative session on Dec. 19, for the second time in a month Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called for pro forma sessions.

For Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), it's not exactly a call to arms resembling his tours of duty in Vietnam. But, as a local senator and a freshman, Webb volunteered to make the drive from his Virginia home to host the first of the pro forma sessions held during a two-week Thanksgiving break. His brief appearance presiding over the Senate provided a minor media bonanza for the rookie senator: CNN carried the brief session live and then broadcast a post-session interview with Webb.

Now, Webb has done pro forma work three more times, including the Sunday before Christmas. Under the current schedule he will have overseen five open-and-shut sessions when the Senate reopens Jan. 22 for legislative business. Aside from the personal sacrifices, it's not hard work.

After a clerk introduces the lone senator on hand for the sessions, the lawmaker generally reads the same script: "Under the previous order the Senate stands in recess until [the date of the next session]." Webb has his duties down to a rhythm, regularly opening and closing the chamber in less than 10 seconds.

Since the sessions are only pro forma, no legislative business is allowed.

"Though the senator is spending time with his family in Arlington for the holidays, he believes it is more than appropriate to drive into Washington to bang a gavel and preserve the constitutional process," said Jessica Smith, Webb's spokeswoman.

The White House believes that the Democrats are overreacting, noting that more than 160 of Bush's nominees are stalled in the confirmation process.

Democrats contend that the president is trying to use the interim appointment power to install people such as Steven G. Bradbury, Bush's selection for assistant attorney general, whom Democrats may not want to confirm.

For the first pro forma sessions, leadership found willing volunteers in Webb, Reed and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.).

This pro forma season, however, required Reid to expand his bench because the legislative break is five weeks.

New volunteers include veterans Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and 75-year-old Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), who recently had surgery on an artery in his neck. Kennedy, the third-longest-serving senator in history, is slated to gavel in the less-than-30-second session next Monday.

Reid, however, has not pulled pro forma duty over the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday season, returning home to Nevada instead.

"There really wasn't a need for him to come back from Nevada," spokesman Jim Manley said, "because he had more than enough members already in town who were glad to help out."

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