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Key positions vacant as nominees await Senate confirmation

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009; A15

Before they left town on Christmas Eve, senators confirmed roughly three dozen of President Obama's nominees, rejected six others and left more than five dozen waiting until late January at the earliest for an up or down vote.

Though most of this week's attention has focused on the lack of stable leadership at the Transportation Security Administration, several other agencies are also without top leadership, and others are missing key deputies in policy and management roles. And the Obama administration lags behind previous administrations in filling federal judgeships.

The Senate confirmed nearly 500 of Obama's nominees this year, with more than 200 nominations still pending, according to the White House. The totals include nominees for executive branch positions, federal judgeships, ambassadorships, as well as U.S. attorney and U.S. marshal posts. The Christmas Eve vote approved 37 nominees with no opposition from either party. But Democrats wanted more.

"We confirmed as many as we could, but as the health-care debate proved, Republicans are not in the habit of making it easy for us," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Republicans accuse Democrats of focusing too much on health-care reform, making confirmation votes impossible. The GOP says that the White House and Senate committees waited until late in the year, just as the legislative calendar filled up, to announce several nominees for posts in the departments of Treasury, Commerce, and Health and Human Services.

Among executive branch nominees, Martha N. Johnson has waited the longest. Obama nominated her to serve as General Services Administration administrator in May, and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee referred her to the full Senate in June.

Johnson's fate rests with Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who placed a hold on her nomination in July. Bond and the entire Missouri congressional delegation have sought information from the GSA for several years about plans to build a new federal building in Kansas City. The agency says that Bond now has the information he requested and that Johnson deserves a vote.

"The agency has been stuck in transition for the last two years," said GSA Communications Director Sahar Wali. "They've been through four acting administrators."

The nomination of M. Patricia Smith to be the Labor Department's solicitor of labor has also been held up. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved Smith as the department's top lawyer in October, but Republicans have concerns about a wage-watch program she launched as New York state labor commissioner.

"Our nation could ask for no better solicitor of labor," Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said of Smith. "Working families and law-abiding employers have waited long enough. We cannot bring the full resources of the department to bear on meeting these challenges without a confirmed solicitor of labor."

Republicans, however, say that the wage program unfairly targets small businesses, and they say that Smith made contradictory statements to the Senate regarding the program's development.

Beyond the stalled nomination of Erroll Southers to lead the TSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA's parent agency, is still without a top manager. Obama nominated Rafael Borras to serve as the department's undersecretary for management in June. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) placed a hold on Borras this month, calling him unqualified. Other departments -- most notably Treasury -- are missing similar assistant and deputy secretaries, leaving many offices rudderless.

As for the judiciary, the Senate has confirmed just 13 judges, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Nineteen judicial nominees are pending in the Senate, with four referred to lawmakers last week.

"Republican obstruction is setting a new low for the Senate in our consideration of judicial nominations," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said last week as the Senate voted on other nominees. The Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed 28 judicial nominees during the first year of the George W. Bush administration, he said.

"This lack of Senate action is attributable to Senate Republicans and no one else," Leahy said.

But despite Republican holds and filibuster threats on some judicial picks, the Obama administration has nominated far fewer judges in its first year than did the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

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