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Slow pace of confirmations upsets Biden at White House

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WASHINGTON (AP) The Senate’s willingness to confirm presidential candidates has waned during Donald Trump’s first year in office. And it only got worse for President Joe Biden.

About 36% of Bidens’ candidates have so far been confirmed in the equally divided Senate, a deterioration from the paltry 38% success rate Trump has seen at the same stage of his presidency. Their predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both saw about two-thirds of their candidates confirmed until October 21, according to the Partnership for the Public Service monitoring.

The trend is alarming for good government advocates, who say Washington’s ability to meet growing challenges is undermined by leadership gaps. But the slow march shows no sign of abating as Senators place grips on a wide range of candidates to gain influence and gain public attention.

Among the most notable examples:

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has put several state and Treasury candidates on hold on a pipeline that will transport natural gas from Russia to Germany. He wants the Biden administration to apply sanctions to arrest him.

Senator Rick Scott, R-Fla., Had put all Department of Homeland Security candidates on hold until Vice President Kamala Harris made it to the US-Mexico border.

Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Has said he will not consent to the appointment of any Defense or State Department candidates until the secretaries of those departments resign over the difficult removal of Afghanistan.

The lockdowns don’t prevent candidates from being confirmed, but they force additional steps in a Senate that is already advancing at a leisurely pace. The save runs through time on the Senate calendar and forces Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to make tough choices about what will see a vote.

Although traffic jams are not new, the struggle for administrative staff is worsening. In the first nine months of the Bush and Obama administrations, the Senate urged less than 10% of its candidates to advance through time-consuming closing votes designed to limit debate. But Democrats increased that figure to 40% under Trump. Republicans responded in kind, raising it to over 50% under Biden, according to White House data.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there had been unprecedented delays, obstructions, detentions on people labeled Republicans in the Senate. And that, she said, thwarts confirmation from ambassadors and economic and national security officials.

The blame is clear, Psaki said. It’s frustrating.

The takes only tell part of the story, however. The number of positions requiring Senate confirmation continues to grow, from less than 800 when Dwight Eisenhower was president to more than 1,200 now. This means more competition for the time and attention of the Senate.

Our system is down, said Max Stier, CEO of the Public Service Partnership. We have a Senate that was designed for another era, the equivalent of the country road and the world around it has become a great urban center and it cannot handle the traffic that is now trying to get it down.

The Stiers organization provides information and training aimed at making government employees more efficient. He said delays in filling key government positions make it more difficult to respond to issues such as the pandemic, the resulting economic fallout, climate change and foreign threats such as those from China, the United States. Russia and North Korea.

We face an extraordinary set of challenges and our government is our only tool as a society to deal with these big issues, said Stier.

His organization recommends that Congress reduce the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation and give candidates a faster vote.

There are legitimate reasons the Senate would reject a candidate, Stier said. But the key point here is that they should give them the top-down vote quickly, not what’s happening now.

Senators seem unlikely to flinch. Retaining a candidate is a rare chance to catch the administration’s attention and possibly change their course of action. At other times, it gives them the opportunity to make a statement that resonates with voters in their party.

Cruz is a long-time opponent of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which he believes will increase Europe’s dependence on Russia for its energy. The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russian companies and ships for their work on the project, but chose not to punish the German company that oversaw it.

Cruzs’ office said the senator is committed to using any leverage at his disposal to impose mandatory sanctions.

He believes those sanctions can still prevent Nord Stream 2 from going live and that the Biden administration can be convinced to implement them, Cruzs’ office said.

Hawley, meanwhile, demanded Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin resign over the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Until there is accountability, the least we can do is vote for candidates for senior positions in the State Department and Department of Defense, Hawley said in a statement.

Without the holds, candidates could be confirmed by a voice vote, a process taking only a few minutes that can be used as long as no senator objects. Thus, more than 90% of the candidates were confirmed at similar stages of the Bush and Obama presidencies.

There is a bright spot for Biden. He overshadows other presidents when it comes to confirming judicial candidates. The Senate confirmed 16 district and circuit court judges as of October 13, which is the combined total of Bush, Obama and Trump on that date.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of the Brookings Institution noted that Obama was criticized for not acting quickly enough on the judges. It’s clear to me that the people at Biden learned from this mistake, she said.

I mean, would you prefer permanent people to be successful or would you have people who are probably going to stay on average for 18-24 months in these jobs? said Tenpas.

During the Trump presidency, it was Republicans who expressed frustration at Democratic tactics to slow down the confirmation process. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, then majority leader, led a change in house rules that reduced the length of time the house could debate a candidate.

In recent weeks, McConnell has repeatedly criticized Democrats for spending so much Senate time on what he described as mid-level appointments. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois scoffed at the critics.

The reason we have to take every step, point every I, go through every T, and listen to endless speeches unrelated to the candidate is his caucus decision to slow this process down, Durbin said.

Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the confirmation process has been a problem for both sides in the majority when everything is so polarized here.

Hope this is just an ugly phase, he said.

___

Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.

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