By Scott Wilson and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 6, 2010; A03
The Obama administration received a rare political gift Friday that brought together a pair of issues the president is promising this election year to do something about -- pork and partisanship.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) announced that he would block administration nominees from Senate votes in an attempt to secure funding for two defense-related projects for his state. The use of the holding tool is often wielded anonymously. But Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) complained publicly about Shelby's effort to win tens of millions of dollars in federal money by delaying dozens of nominees from taking up government positions, including some in national security agencies.
In his State of the Union address, Obama identified Washington's partisan dysfunction as a key concern of economically distressed voters, and he has raised the issue at nearly every turn in recent days, although Obama's own party has used Senate delay tactics to hold up GOP nominees. The president himself signed a $447 billion omnibus spending bill in December that included more than 5,000 of the kind of earmarks that Shelby is seeking.
Nonetheless, senior administration officials spared little time in pointing to Shelby's move as a sign of GOP intransigence, and the Democratic National Committee released a Web video Friday suggesting that the Alabama senator's "blanket hold" is a threat to national security.
In a meeting with reporters, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "If that's not the poster child for how this town needs to change the way it works, I fear there won't be a greater example of silliness throughout the entire year of 2010."
"It boggles the mind to hold up qualified nominees for positions that are needed to perform functions in a government because you didn't get two earmarks," Gibbs said.
Shelby's tactic was just one sign Friday of Washington's enduring partisanship.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate banking committee, announced that negotiations with Republicans on financial-reform legislation had broken down. And House GOP leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) informed the administration that his party would not participate in Obama's proposed commission to examine ways to close the $1.6 trillion budget deficit unless half the panel's 18 members are Republican.
Shelby is seeking funds for the KC-135 Air Force tanker fleet, a project that could generate thousands of jobs in Alabama. He is also demanding that the administration restore funding cut from the budget for the FBI's Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, a facility to test defenses against the improvised bombs used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shelby placed the hold because of "unaddressed national security concerns," according to a statement released by his office. He "has made the administration aware of these concerns and is willing to discuss them at any time." The statement said Shelby was holding up "several" nominees, but the White House and Reid's office placed the number at more than 70.
Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Reid, said "regardless of his concern, Shelby shouldn't have a hold on 70-plus nominees because of a parochial issue."
In addition to Cabinet secretaries, the Senate is charged with granting its "advice and consent" on more than 2,000 ambassadors, federal judges, regulatory and law enforcement officials, and commission members. Most of those positions do not typically generate controversy.
According to data provided by Reid's office, three of President George W. Bush's nominees during his first year in office waited more than three months to be confirmed. During Obama's tenure, 46 nominees have waited at least three months and nine have waited at least twice that long.
Gibbs cited the nomination of Martha N. Johnson, who was confirmed Thursday as head of the General Services Administration by a 94 to 2 vote. The approval came nearly 10 months after Obama put her name forward.
Although unanimously approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee in early 2009, Johnson's nomination was held up by Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who wanted $175 million for a new federal building in Kansas City. Before the Senate floor vote, Bond said, "As senators, we have a few tools at our disposal to carry out our responsibilities." Although the building's future remains uncertain, he voted in favor of Johnson's nomination.
On the Senate floor Thursday, Reid said, "There isn't enough time in the world -- the Senate world, at least -- to move cloture on every one of these." He was referring to the procedural maneuver Democrats must rely on to force votes on nominees, which can consume up to three days.
Asked whether the White House would consider filling the positions through recess appointments while Congress is out of session, as Reid has recommended, Gibbs said, "The president will certainly look at all his options." A recess appointee must be approved by the Senate before the end of its current session or the position becomes vacant.
According to the Congressional Research Service, President Bill Clinton made 139 recess appointments and Bush used the authority 171 times during his first seven years. One of the most controversial cases: the Aug. 1, 2005, appointment of John R. Bolton as U.N. ambassador, breaking a five-month standoff with Democrats, who viewed Bolton as too conservative for the job.
Reid acknowledged that he had criticized Bush for such moves. But, he added, "what alternative do we have? I think it is without explanation what is happening."
Staff writers Lori Montgomery and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.