Shelby's 'holds' are good enough for McConnell

Reid, top, was unable to get McConnell to budge on Obama nominees.
Reid, top, was unable to get McConnell to budge on Obama nominees. (Cliff Owen - AP)
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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has taken massive incoming fire from Democrats for the past five days for exercising a traditional Senate prerogative. He's blocking about 70 administration nominees in order to try to get an Air Force tanker project -- and thousands of jobs -- for his state and to ensure funding for a counterterrorism center there.

The Democrats, though themselves practitioners of this maneuver in the past, denounced Shelby for holding up all those people for what they called a "parochial issue."

But there were terrorism implications that no one focused on. We're talking military equipment and counterterrorism issues here. Those themes seemed to have been lost in the fuss -- despite an excellent shot by Shelby spokesman Jonathan Graffeo.

"If this administration were as worried about hunting down terrorists as it is about the confirmation of low-level political nominations," he said last week, "America would be a safer place."

Okay. Minor problem. Some of the nominations weren't all that low-level. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) beseeched Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the Senate floor Thursday to let just four of blocked nominees go forward.

"There are people out there," Reid said, "evil people, trying to do damage to our country every day, every week, every month, every hour." He asked for approval of the nominees for undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness (Clifford L. Stanley), assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research (Philip S. Goldberg), undersecretary of homeland security for intelligence (Caryn Wagner), and a representative to a conference on disarmament (Laura Kennedy).

McConnell refused to let the quartet through. "I wish to indicate that Senator Shelby has been in discussions with the administration over an issue with which I am not terribly familiar, and I believe that is the genesis of his objection," McConnell said, leading us to believe that our more expansive interpretation of Shelby's concerns was incorrect.

"He is not able to be here at the moment to state his position," McConnell said. "Maybe in discussions with him, we can make some progress on these, sooner rather than later, but for the moment I am constrained to object on his behalf."

Tuesday night, the Senate confirmed Stanley and Goldberg, but Wagner's nomination was held up by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Reid said. Kennedy, too, was unable to obtain unanimous consent. Thus they were dead, at least for now.

Unclear whether Shelby made any progress with the White House -- didn't appear so -- but late Monday he lifted holds on all nominees save three whose jobs related directly to the tanker question.

At State, for now

There was a brief buzz last week in the diplo world that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration and more recently dean of the public affairs school at the University of Texas, was under consideration to head Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

For Steinberg fans, it made sense. He's said to be not at all happy these days, working like a dog, unable to keep up with all the paperwork and doing a job he didn't really want in the first place. Steinberg had hoped to be national security adviser or secretary of state. He didn't get the first one. And when the deputy job at State was offered, it was sweetened with a provision that he would not only attend the regular "deputies meetings" but also the "principals meetings," for heads of departments.

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