Why three Obama nominees are so controversial

A procedural maneuver by two tea party senators gives 23 Obama nominees, some highly controversial, an unexpected chance for confirmation in the last hours of the 113th Congress. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada leaves a meeting with his caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 9, 2014. Procedural tactics by two GOP senators gave Reid an unexpected last chance to confirm 23 presidential nominations that Republicans had blocked.

Thanks to an unexpected legislative maneuver orchestrated by Sens. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Mike Lee (R) of Utah, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada got two extra days he needed to try to move a slate of 23 presidential nominees, some strongly opposed by Republicans, before the 113th Congress ends this week and Democrats lose their majority.

Republicans had blocked these nominees for months and had expected to run out the clock. But the surprise weekend session, during which the Senate passed the budget deal on Saturday, gave Senator Reid an opening, and he seized it.

“The surgeon general nominee – previously blocked – will be confirmed due to missteps,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina on Saturday, according to CQ Roll Call.  “I haven’t seen Harry Reid smile like this in years. I don’t like it one bit.”

Here are three nominees that GOP senators find particularly objectionable:

Vivek Murthy for surgeon general. The Indian-American physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston is a founder and president of Doctors for America, which supports comprehensive health-care reform. His advocacy for the Affordable Care Act is one problem for Republicans, and so is his support for gun control and his view that guns are a health-care issue.

At his confirmation hearing on Feb. 4, Dr. Murthy said he didn’t intend to use the surgeon general’s office as a bully pulpit for gun control. Rather, he said, his priority will be obesity prevention. Later that month, the National Rifle Association wrote senators a letter objecting to the Murthy nomination.

Sarah Saldaña to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Dallas-based US attorney would be the first Latina as the nation’s top immigration enforcer. She had the support of the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas. “Sarah is a dedicated public servant with a distinguished career as a prosecutor,” Senator Cornyn said, when she was nominated in August.

But since then, she has said that she believes President Obama’s recent executive action shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation is legal. That’s anathema to Republicans, who see the move as executive overreach or even unconstitutional.

Antony Blinken for deputy secretary of State. Mr. Blinken has been the president’s deputy national security adviser since January 2013. His old stomping grounds are the Senate, where he was Democratic staff director for the Committee on Foreign Relations from 2002 to 2008, when he joined the Obama-Biden presidential transition team.

Republicans complain that Blinken is unqualified and that he advocated for and helped implement the Obama administration’s drawdown of US forces in Iraq. They also worry that he could change the US relationship with Cuba.

Since Democrats changed the rules on most confirmations last year, it only takes a majority vote to approve nominees (the exception is nominees for the Supreme Court). But that doesn't guarantee that Reid will get all the nominees on his list. Much depends on whether Republicans will exploit legislative procedures to use the maximum time possible in the confirmation process.

Stretching out the process might cut it too close to the holidays for many senators, who would either pressure Reid to give up, or simply head for the exits – depriving him of votes.

That’s why this Christmas, Harry Reid is grateful for an unexpected gift of two more days. 

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