Politico

Democrats pushed through dozens in December, but Republicans have all the leverage now.
By Burgess Everett
12/29/14 9:02 PM EST

Democrats are still dancing in the end zone after running up the score on dozens of President Barack Obama’s nominees during the lame duck.

They should enjoy the moment, because Republicans are about to step up their goal-line defense.

During the last five days of the Senate Democratic majority, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put the finishing touches on a year-long project of approving judges to lifetime appointments and installing long-stalled executive nominations. While Democrats outwardly emphasized their messaging votes on raising the minimum wage and pay equity over the past year, all along they were building the foundation for Obama to fill out his team — and the courts — in preparation for a possible Republican takeover.

As they stared down a brutal mid-term map in 2014 that led to the demise of their majority, Democrats worked furiously during the 113th Congress to approve 132 judges, the most since the last two years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, according to aides. Reid surveyed the grim legislative relations with Republicans last fall, then steered his caucus to change the Senate rules to lower the filibuster threshold from 60 votes to a bare majority, destroying Republicans’ leverage and quietly chugging through 96 judges since the rules change and nearly 300 executive nominees just in 2014.

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Now with GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) set to take over the Senate, the GOP’s leverage is back and Obama will never again experience the heady level of nominee productivity of the past two years. But Democrats believe their confirmation work was so productive that they have left the president’s cabinet and courts stocked as fully as could have been expected.

During the waning days of the lame duck, President Obama spoke personally to Reid about how to prioritize nominations, according to a source familiar with the talks, and White House officials emphasized the importance of confirming a dozen outstanding judges and Sarah Saldana to oversee Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Vivek Murthy to be surgeon general and Tony Blinken to be No. 2 at the State Department. All were ultimately confirmed.

“It’s a tremendous difference,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a leading advocate of the Senate rules change. “The Senate was being used to undermine the executive and judiciary branches, completely betraying the constitutional vision of three critical branches of government. So, I think we’ve restored the right balance.”

Republicans, of course, vehemently disagree and have accused Democrats of court-packing and destroying the minority’s rights. As they left Washington for a much-needed winter break, the GOP had made no decision on the filibuster threshold for next year. But senior Republican senators are calculating how to handle the Senate’s unique role overseeing the Obama administration’s personnel and the nation’s courts, and how to balance their opposition to the president with their vision of responsible governance.

“There’s a real discussion going on in the Republican Party about: ‘How do we handle this?’” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is entering the presidential line of succession as Republicans’ most senior senator.

In some ways, Democrats’ last-minute push to approve dozens of Obama’s nominees (69 were confirmed in the last five days of the Senate’s session) is clarifying for Republicans. Democrats completely cleared the floor of judicial nominees, and many lower level and obscure positions in the executive branch were filled in bipartisan fashion. Murthy, Saldana and Blinken’s hot-button appointments were pushed through over Republican objections, ending several bitterly contested disputes over nominations and clearing a politically-charged backlog.

Now, Republicans have two key nominees to consider as they test their new majority: Loretta Lynch to be attorney general and Ashton Carter to be Defense secretary. Barring unforeseen circumstances or gaffes in their confirmation hearings, both are expected to be eventually confirmed, which will help set the narrative of McConnell’s envisioned governing majority.

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