The National Black Lawyers

President’s nominees face do-or-die moment as Congress sets to adjourn

November 18, 2019

Anxiety is mounting among advocacy groups over the fates of dozens of executive and judicial branch nominees who remain in Senate limbo as the 113th Congress gets ready to close up shop.

With Republicans poised to take control of the chamber in January, many see the next several days as the last, best chance to approve President Obama’s choices. Any nominee who isn’t approved before the end of this Congress would have to be renominated in 2015.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has pledged to confirm Vivek Murthy to serve as the next surgeon general despite strong opposition from the National Rifle Association.

Murthy’s beleaguered nomination gained new life in recent days after red-state Democrats such as Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) announced their backing.

Reid has steadily churned through nominees this year, taking advantage of the rule change Democrats made last year that lowered the threshold from 60 votes to a simple majority for most positions. But 172 nominations were still pending on the executive calendar Wednesday, including nine district court nominees and 18 State Department picks.

A Senate Democratic aide said there is a backlog of court vacancies because Republicans have flouted the long-standing Senate precedent of clearing nominations before the end of each year.

“Rather than working in a bipartisan fashion to confirm consensus nominees to fill judgeships as we wind down for the year, Senate Republicans have deliberately refused to agree to vote on consensus nominees who could and should be confirmed without delay,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in December of last year.

Reid is threatening to keep the Senate in session as long as necessary.

“You know, maybe we’ll have to work the weekend and maybe even work next week,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve given a list to the Republicans and it’s up to them to decide how long we stay.”

Reid’s top priorities include Obama’s picks to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Social Security Administration and the nine pending federal judges.

• Obama has tapped Sarah Saldaña, a Dallas-based attorney, to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month moved her nomination to the floor, where she faces opposition from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who called her a “rubber stamp for amnesty.”

• Republicans have pledged to block Carolyn Colvin, Obama’s choice to head the Social Security Administration, because of concerns about her record as acting commissioner. Critics are focused on a faulty $300 million computer project at the agency.

Liberal groups say the Senate should confirm all of the district court nominees on the executive calendar as well as three still pending in the Judiciary Committee.

“We want to make sure all the judicial nominees who are ready to go get through before the end of the year,” said Michelle Schwartz, director of justice programs at the Alliance for Justice.

She pointed out that most of the nominees were approved in committee by voice vote and have the support of both home-state senators.

• Robert Pitman, a nominee to the District Court for the Western District of Texas, is the first openly gay judicial nominee in Texas and would be the first such nominee in any state represented by two Republican senators.

• Amit Mehta, a nominee to the D.C. District Court, would be the first Asian Pacific-American to serve on that court and would add professional diversity as a former public defender.

• Haywood Gilliam is Obama’s pick to serve on the court for the Northern District of California. Supporters say he would increase the number of African-Americans on that court.

• Loretta Biggs, a judicial nominee to the Middle District of North Carolina, would be the first African-American female federal judge in North Carolina. Her nomination has yet to be approved by the Judiciary Committee.

• Elizabeth Dillon, a nominee to the Western District of Virginia, would be the first woman to serve as a judge on that court. She also awaits a vote in committee.

“We would love to see all of the ones pending confirmed. If that’s not going to happen, we’d like to see the judges confirmed that Sen. Reid has prioritized,” said Shane Larson, legislative director of the Communications Workers of America.

Some nominees have run into staunch opposition and will probably not be confirmed.

• Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), representing both ends of the Democratic ideological spectrum, have lined up against Antonio Weiss, Obama’s selection to serve as Treasury undersecretary for Domestic Finance. Democrats have balked at his employment at Lazard, an investment banking firm.

• Michael Boggs, whom Obama nominated to the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, stalled after getting strong pushback from the Congressional Black Caucus. The president picked him as part of a package deal with Georgia Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. Black lawmakers objected to his past support for keeping the Confederate emblem on the Georgia flag. Leahy said in September that Boggs doesn’t have the votes.

 

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