WASHINGTON — Senior senators are negotiating to reduce the 1,400 presidential appointments subject to time-consuming Senate confirmation, hoping to streamline a system that has frustrated administrations of both parties, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
These officials said that 100 posts or more could be dropped from the list if discussions between Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., result in an agreement that gains the support of the rank and file in both parties. Judicial appointments would not be affected, nor would the most senior positions at Cabinet department or independent agencies.
In addition, the two men have discussed curtailing the right enjoyed by individual senators to block action on a nomination or legislation anonymously for up to five days. This rule is widely flouted.
The talks are occurring against a backdrop of calls from some Democrats for far more sweeping changes in the Senate's filibuster rules, which allow the minority party — Republicans now — to slow or defeat nominations and legislation without allowing a yes-or-no vote.
Given a lack of support among Republicans and past opposition from some Democrats, these broader proposals appear to have little or no chance of winning the two-thirds majority the Senate's rules say are generally required to take effect. Advocates of the revisions argue that a simple majority vote is sufficient to put them in place at the beginning of a new Congress, as they want to do. But it is not clear they can command that much support in an institution where Democrats and aligned independents control 53 seats, to 47 for the Republicans.
The Senate returns to work Tuesday for the first time in two weeks; the proposed rules changes are among the first orders of business.
The talks between Schumer and Alexander were set in motion by agreement between the two parties' top senators, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
In a scripted back and forth the day the Senate convened for the year, Reid said, "In the vast majority of instances, the individuals nominated by the president are not controversial, but many have faced delays before assuming their positions. These delays mean critical decision makers are not in place. And the delays make it harder to find qualified people — many great nominees simply cannot wait around for months as the stress and uncertainty affects their families."
McConnell said the number of nominees subject to confirmation has grown significantly. He added, "I look forward to working with the majority leader and my colleagues in the coming weeks as we finalize this proposal."
The Constitution gives the Senate the power to confirm nominees, and the list of positions subject to approval has grown sharply in recent decades. One recent study said the number of core policy positions has risen from 295 in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan took office to 422 when President Barack Obama arrived at the White House.
After selection by the president, each appointee for a post requiring confirmation generally submits paperwork to a Senate committee that will handle the review and then makes a series of courtesy calls on individual lawmakers, who sometimes use the opportunity to extract promises in exchange for speedy approval.
Nominees generally testify and answer question at a public hearing, the committee acts and then, in a final step, the entire Senate votes. The process can move speedily — or take months, even if there is no apparent opposition.
The sheer volume can slow the pace.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has jurisdiction over 303 posts, including 185 ambassadors. The Senate Judiciary Committee oversees 252, including 92 U.S. attorneys and 92 U.S. marshals. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has control over 101, and the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee over 83.
Officials said Schumer and Alexander were reviewing the list with a goal of eliminating positions with relatively little influence over policy making at federal agencies. The officials who described the talks did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss them publicly.
Presidents in both parties have been affected by the current system.
Reid's office said this year that seven of Obama's nominees had awaited confirmation votes since 2009. President George W. Bush had only about half of his political appointees in place at the time of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, nearly eight months after he took office.
Beyond a possible agreement concerning nominees, it is not clear what, if any change the Senate will make in the filibuster rules.
Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M. and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and others have proposed a series of changes to reduce the ability of any minority to delay action by a filibuster, which can only be overcome by 60 votes or more. Democrats accuse Republicans of resorting to the filibuster as a matter of routine in the past few years to slow or defeat Obama's legislative agenda. Republicans counter that Democrats seek to deny them the right to have votes on proposed amendments to legislation, effectively locking them out.
Udall, Merkley and others also want to require any senator seeking to block action to do so openly, rather anonymously.
Senate background on filibuster: http://tinyurl.com/7kww
Senate background on nominations: http://tinyurl.com/9w3sw