GOP Senators Continue To Flirt with Filibusters

This past January U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to press for adoption on a simple majority vote (at least 51 of the 100 Senators) of significant, but still flawed, reforms of the body’s filibuster rule. Instead Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to much weaker changes to the rule. Past posts have expressed my dissatisfaction with this rule and the recent change.

As a result, the Senate and the U.S. are still facing threatened filibusters by Senate Republicans over confirmation of presidential nominations.

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel

The most recent example is the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

Yes, on February 26th the U.S. Senate did vote, 71 to 27, to invoke cloture and end debate on voting on confirmation of this nomination. The 71 votes came from 53 Democratic, 2 Independent and 18 Republican Senators, including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who continued to be severe critics of Hagel. (Two Democratic Senators did not vote: Mark Udall and Frank Lautenberg.)

Later that same day the Senate voted, 58 to 41, to confirm Hagel for this position. For this vote, only four Republican Senators were in the majority: Senators Thad Cochran, Mike Johanns, Richard Shelby and Rand Paul. (Senator Lautenberg did not vote.)

While I am pleased that there was no prolonged filibuster of this nomination and that the  Senate did vote on confirmation, getting there, in my opinion, was needlessly prolonged and again demonstrated the dysfunctionality of the Senate. Here are some of the reasons for that opinion:

  • In early February Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, delayed a committee vote on the nomination in an attempt to garner support for same from some of the Republican committee members.
  • On February 14th, the Senate failed by one vote to invoke cloture, 59 to 40 (Majority Leader Harry Reid later switched his “Yes” vote to “No” so he could later move to reconsider cloture).
  • Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Inhofe had put “holds”on the nomination and thereby prevented a vote on confirmation; Graham wanted more information from the Administration about the Benghazi attack (in which Hagel had no involvement) while Inhofe fomented that Hagel was anti-Israel.
  • Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post columnist, reported that Republicans were voting against cloture because there were no political risks from doing so; they said they had legitimate doubts about Hagel’s ability to lead the Pentagon; and resistance was a Republican rallying cry.
  • Another Washington Post columnist, Jonathan Bernstein, stated that Republican Senators are insisting on a 60 vote requirement for virtually everything because many of them see no difference on cloture and substantive voting and do not require extraordinary reasons to vote against cloture.
  • Senator McCain said that one of the reasons for Republican opposition to Hagel, their former Republican Senate colleague, was his very vocal criticism of President George W. Bush over the Iraq war.
  • Some Republican Senators were opposed to Hagel for allegedly receiving money from a group called “Friends of Hamas” — a rumor that started with a joke about a nonexistent group.
  • On February 15th 15 Republican Senators wrote a joint letter to President Obama asking him to withdraw the Hagel nomination.
John Brennan
John Brennan

This dysunctionality is not over with the confirmation of Hagel. Senator McCain has threatened a similar GOP strategy with respect to confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the CIA.

Jacob J. Lew
Jacob J. Lew

On the other hand, the Senate on February 27th confirmed, 71 (including 20 Republicans) to 26, the nomination of Jacob J. Lew for Secretary of the Treasury.

And on February 25, 2013, the Senate confirmed, 93-0, Robert Bacharach to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He, however,  had been appointed to that position in January 2012, and in the last Congress, in July 2012, clouture was defeated, 56-34.

All of this silliness over Chuck Hagel and potentially over John Brennan would have been prevented if the Senate this past January had adopted more significant reform of its rules regarding filibuster.

 

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Holds Hearing on the Law of the Sea Convention

On May 23, 2012, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on the Law of the Sea Convention that the Committee called “The U.S. National Security and Strategic Imperatives for Ratification.”

Senator John Kerry

Opening the hearing, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Committee Chairman, said he was “deeply supportive” of the treaty and believed “it is now more urgent than ever that we ratify it because to remain outside of it is fundamentally, directly counter to the best interests of our country.” Ratification, he said, “will protect America’s economic interests and our strategic security interests.”

Kerry promised a comprehensive set of hearings so that proponents and opponents of the treaty can be heard. Kerry, however, said he would delay a Committee vote until after the November election in order to keep the debate about ratification out of the “hurly-burly of presidential politics.”

Three Obama Administration officials–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey–were the witnesses at the May 23rd hearing. Their full testimony is available online.

Secretary Hillary Clinton

Secretary Clinton said, “Whatever arguments may have existed for delaying U.S. accession no longer exist and truly cannot even be taken with a straight face.” By refusing to ratify the treaty, Mrs. Clinton said, the U.S. could fail to exploit untapped oil and gas deposits buried beneath the offshore seabed. It could lose out to Russia, Norway and other countries in staking claims to the Arctic Ocean, where melting ice is opening up untold mineral riches. And the U.S. could lose credibility in challenging China’s maritime ambitions in the South China Sea.

Secretary Leon Panetta
General Martin Dempsey

Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey focused on the national security benefits, arguing that by instituting rules and a mechanism for resolving disputes, the treaty reduces the threat of conflict in hot spots like the South China Sea and the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened to block in retaliation for oil sanctions. Panetta’s lengthy earlier speech about the treaty was summarized in a prior post.

Two Republican members of the Senate Committee voiced opposition to ratification. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma complained that under the treaty, the U.S. would have to transfer billions of dollars in royalties from oil and gas production on the continental shelf to an international authority, which would redistribute the money to less developed countries. Senator James Risch of Idaho said the treaty would oblige the U.S. to adhere to international agreements to stem greenhouse gas emissions. “That’s got Kyoto written all over it,” he said, referring to the climate change treaty previously rejected by the United States.

There is other opposition to ratification. Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to a defense spending bill that banned funding for implementation of the treaty. Also opposed are The Heritage Foundation and other conservative organizations.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, supports ratification as offering “clear legal rights and protections” to U.S. businesses to “take advantage of the vast natural resources in and under the oceans off the U.S. coasts and around the world.”