The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How historic is the GOP’s filibuster of Mel Watt?

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Senate Republicans blocked the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to the Federal Housing Finance Agency on Thursday, and Democrats are crying foul.

In doing so, several of them have used a similar stat.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put it this way: “Republicans’ unprecedented obstruction continued today with a step that we have not seen since the Civil War, as they blocked Representative Mel Watt, a sitting member of the House of Representatives, from being confirmed to an administration position."

Wade Henderson, head of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told The Hill: “No sitting member of Congress has been successfully filibustered since before the Civil War."

These examples point to the rejection of then-Rep. Caleb Cushing as treasury secretary in 1843. That's the last time a sitting member of Congress was rejected for a Cabinet position, according to the Senate historian.

But there's a key difference: Watt isn't being nominated to a Cabinet position. The FHFA is, like a multitude of other appointed positions, sub-Cabinet.

We asked the Senate historian whether Watt is also the first sitting member since the Civil War to be denied confirmation to any office, period. The historian said there are so many such positions (here's a list) and so many members of Congress that it would be nearly impossible to determine.

It's not clear how many sitting members of Congress have even been nominated to such posts.

Reid's office said it got the stat from The Leadership Conference. A spokesman there told us his group and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund conducted extensive research. He pointed us to this release from the NAACP LDF, which says "we could find only one instance in which a sitting Member of Congress was not confirmed to a Cabinet position, and we had to go back to 1843."

Again, this stat focuses only on Cabinet positions, not offices like the one Watt is being nominated to.

In other words, we're still not sure it's correct to say that Watt is the first sitting member of Congress to be denied confirmation since the Civil War.

But just because we haven't found the answer doesn't mean that some enterprising Fix reader won't. Let us know if you have better information than we do.

Update 11:27 a.m.: Readers have so far pointed to two examples of members of Congress being rejected for jobs they were nominated for -- though neither disproves Democrats' claim that Watt is the first sitting member to be rejected since the Civil War.

One is former senator John Tower (R-Tex.), who was rejected as George H.W. Bush's Defense Secretary nominee in 1989. Tower left office four years prior, so he wasn't technically a "sitting" member, but it's hard to see why that distinction makes his rejection less significant -- especially given Tower served 24 years in the Senate.

The second is former congressman Chris Cox (R-Calif.), who was under consideration for an appellate judge position in 2001. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) fought hard against him and, after Sen. Jim Jeffords's (Vt.) switch from Republican to independent changed control of the Senate, Cox was never officially nominated.

Cox wasn't technically nominated or rejected, but it was clear that his name was chief among those being considered. It's also noteworthy that the position was in the Judicial branch and not the Executive branch. Reid's claim only covered the Executive.

Cox was later confirmed as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.