By Aaron Blake
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 5:09 PM
Republicans are denouncing President Obama's appointment of what they say are questionable nominees to key jobs while Congress is away for the holidays.
Obama made appointments on Wednesday to the posts of deputy attorney general and ambassador to Syria, taking advantage of the congressional recess to push through nominees that Republicans had previously blocked.
The most controversial among them were James Cole, who will be second-in-command behind Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and the new ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. The so-called recess appointments avoid the normal Senate confirmation process, allowing the appointees to serve without the Senate's approval until the end of the incoming Congress.
On Thursday, the GOP began to fight back, issuing some strongly worded statements critical of Obama's action.
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Cole's appointment sends the wrong message.
"The appointment indicates that the Obama administration continues to try to implement its dangerous policies of treating Islamic terrorism as a criminal matter," King said, citing the recent furor over plans to try accused terrorists in civilian courts.
Republicans have criticized Cole for writing in 2002, as a private attorney, that the attorney general's role is to prosecute criminals rather than fight a war. They have also pointed to his work as an independent consultant to the American International Group (AIG) before its collapse and subsequent bailout in 2008.
"The recess appointment of such a questionable individual who so clearly could not be confirmed by the Senate for a position of this importance is unacceptable," said Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.), who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee with King.
Ford's nomination also irked Republicans, many of whom would prefer the United States not appoint an ambassador to Syria at all.
President George W. Bush had pulled his ambassador from Damascus in 2005, after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Syrian intelligence officials were suspected in the killing; Syria's president has denied any involvement by his country. The United States has not sent an ambassador since then.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said late Wednesday that Ford's appointment represents a "major concession to the Syrian regime."
"That is the wrong message to be sending to a regime which continues to harm and threaten U.S. interests and those of such critical allies as Israel," she said.
In May, 12 Republican senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressing concerns about engaging with Syria and saying they wanted those concerns addressed before voting on a new ambassador.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has accused Syria of supplying arms to Hezbollah militants. Clinton has said that sending an emissary to Damascus does not constitute a reward.
One of the senators who signed the letter, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), said after the appointments that he thinks they're the wrong path.
"It is always better for controversial nominees such as this one to go through the proper channels," Chambliss said.
Presidents have broad latitude to make appointments during recess, but the appointee can serve only through the end of the next session of Congress, in this case likely December 2011, when he or she must be confirmed by the Senate.
Obama is hardly the only president to use such powers to appoint nominees who couldn't pass muster in the Senate. In 2005, Bush used a recess appointment to install John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, over the objections of Senate Democrats.
Obama made six total recess appointments on Wednesday, including new ambassadors to Turkey, the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan. Various members of the Senate had blocked votes on each of the nominees for a wide range of reasons.