Senate Democrats, angry over President Reagan's continued use of recess appointment powers to circumvent Senate confirmation powers, are holding up action on virtually all administration nominations to force an agreement on the issue.
Only a few high-level military appointments have gotten through the Senate since it returned after Labor Day to find that Reagan, over earlier objections from Senate Democrats, had made several recess appointments during Congress' month-long August vacation.
Left in limbo until an agreement is worked out are a dozen judicial nominees, along with several appointees to major sub-Cabinet posts in several departments.
"I just feel the White House needs to understand the concern we have that recess powers ought not to be used to circumvent the role of the Senate under the Constitution to advise and consent" on nominations, Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said of the Democrats' delaying action.
The controversy involves a constitutional safety valve that permits presidents, presumably in emergencies, to make appointments during congressional recesses. Such appointees may serve until the end of the congressional term, with or without Senate confirmation.
Thus a recess appointment made last summer would continue in force until the end of next year, even if the Senate refused to confirm the nominee under normal procedures.
Byrd said in an interview yesterday that, although there may be controversy over one or more of last summer's recess appointees, the main issue is Reagan's continued use of recess appointment powers for nonemergency situations.
"We're concerned that it's being overly used when it isn't necessary," he said. "At least in some instances it has the appearance of circumventing the Senate."
The most recent recess appointments included Vance L. Clark as head of the Farmers Home Administration; Thomas P. Josefiak as a member of the Federal Election Commission; Raymond D. Lett as assistant secretary of agriculture for marketing and inspection services; Hugh Montgomery and Herbert S. Okun as representatives to the United Nations, and Robert E. Rader Jr. and John R. Wall as members of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. The name of at least one of the nominees has since been resubmitted under normal confirmation procedures.
Senate Democrats, upset over earlier recess appointments by Reagan, empowered Byrd last July to write the president and ask him to refrain from making any during the August break.
"The forthcoming August recess should not, in our judgment, be considered the kind of extended recess contemplated by . . . the Constitution," Byrd wrote Reagan. "Rather, recess appointments should be limited to circumstances when the Senate, by reason of protracted recess, is incapable of confirming a vitally needed public officer. Any other interpretation of the recess appointments clause of the Constitution could be seen as a deliberate effort to circumvent the constitutional responsibility of the Senate to advise and consent to such appointments."
According to Democratic officials, the only response they got was in the form of the seven recess appointments. Only after Byrd met recently with Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) did Byrd get a response from the White House, the officials said. They said Reagan's letter reiterated the White House position that recess appointments are within the president's powers under the Constitution.
Byrd said "some back-and-forth thinking" is under way between the Senate and the White House and added, "I think it can be worked out."