By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008
A controversial Bush administration nominee to the Federal Election Commission withdrew from consideration yesterday, providing a likely breakthrough to an impasse that has sidelined the political watchdog agency at the height of the primary season.
Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department lawyer whose nomination became entangled in allegations that political considerations influenced decisions by the agency's Civil Rights Division, sent President Bush a letter withdrawing his name.
Senate Democrats had refused for a year to confirm von Spakovsky, torpedoing the nominations of three other nominees and denying the FEC a quorum. Since Jan. 1, only two of the agency's six commissioner slots have been filled. Bush, supported by GOP Senate leaders, had refused to withdraw von Spakovsky's name.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) claimed victory yesterday and predicted that Bush would soon select a replacement who could quickly win confirmation along with four other pending nominees and put the FEC back on its feet.
"His withdrawal today is a victory for our electoral process. With Mr. von Spakovsky now removed, I anticipate that we will be able to swiftly put a functioning FEC in place," Reid said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had fought for von Spakovsky's approval as part of a bipartisan bloc of nominees, said Democrats had "set a troubling precedent" by blocking his nomination. He said he hoped a new selection would not be treated in the same "deplorable manner."
"Looking to the November elections, it is imperative that we have a fully functioning, bipartisan FEC. New nominees should be voted on and confirmed without any more political games," McConnell said.
Without a quorum, the agency has not been able to officially act on a number of critical matters. When the FEC regains a quorum, it will immediately face decisions on:
· Approving about $85 million in public financing for the presidential general election campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), money that has been set aside but left in political limbo.
· Officially beginning investigations into campaign finance irregularities, including a likely probe of an alleged embezzlement scheme by the former treasurer of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
· Finalizing several rules, including new sunshine requirements that presidential and congressional campaigns disclose the names of lobbyists who bundle donations from their clients to lawmakers.
· Deciding whether McCain properly opted out of the public financing system for the primary campaign, after initially signaling he would take public funds and using the expectation of that money as collateral for a multimillion-dollar loan.
In 2006, Bush gave von Spakovsky and several others temporary recess appointments to the FEC. Rather than confirming them, however, Democrats raised questions about von Spakovsky's tenure at the Justice Department, where he was a counsel in the Civil Rights Division. Led by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, they accused him of politicizing his oversight of voter laws.
The White House rejected those accusations again yesterday, saying von Spakovsky's "good-faith legal positions" had been vindicated by federal court rulings on issues such as voter identification laws.
"Senate Democrats put partisanship ahead of a fully functioning, bipartisan FEC," White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said.
McConnell had demanded that the entire slate of bipartisan nominees be considered at once or that they be voted on in bipartisan packages of two nominations. That tradition has ensured that neither party can reject the other's nominees to the evenly divided six-member commission.
Unwilling to compromise, Reid and McConnell allowed the recess appointments to expire on New Year's Day. The FEC essentially has not conducted business since.
The term of one commissioner, Democrat Ellen L. Weintraub, will continue. A Democratic nominee, Stephen T. Walther, whose recess appointment expired Dec. 31 along with von Spakovsky's, is awaiting Senate confirmation.
Von Spakovsky's replacement would join three other nominees sent by the White House to the Senate for confirmation this month. If Walther and those four are confirmed, the FEC will be at full strength.