President Obama criticized senators Wednesday for using a legislative tactic he once practiced himself, saying that Republicans were delaying confirmation votes on several of his nominees for reasons unrelated to their qualifications.
"We've got a huge backlog of folks who are unanimously viewed as well qualified -- nobody has a specific objection to them -- but end up having a hold on them because of some completely unrelated piece of business," Obama said at a question-and-answer session during the Senate Democratic Conference, held at the Newseum.
Senate rules allow members to place a hold on nominees -- to block their consideration by the chamber -- at any time for any reason. Such holds are often placed privately, making it exceedingly difficult for those outside the Senate to track their use, and they can be a powerful tool to influence the executive branch.
News reports indicate that Obama, as a senator from Illinois, placed holds on at least three Bush administration nominees amid policy disagreements or concerns about their qualifications.
The president spoke a day ahead of scheduled votes in the Senate on the confirmation of M. Patricia Smith, nominated to serve as the Labor Department's top lawyer, and Martha N. Johnson, tapped to lead the General Services Administration. Other confirmation votes could also occur Thursday, Senate aides said, while some may come next week.
Obama singled out Johnson for attention. She has waited since June for a full Senate vote.
"I don't have a GSA administrator, even though I nominated somebody who was well qualified several months ago, and nobody can tell me that there's anything particularly wrong with her," Obama said. "They're blocking her because of some unrelated matter."
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) placed a hold on Johnson's nomination in July as he urged the GSA to build a new federal building in Kansas City.
"The senator is far more concerned about the 1,000 federal employees in Kansas City being held hostage than someone who wants a D.C. job," said Bond spokeswoman Shana Marchio.
In 2005, a year after his election to the Senate, Obama placed a hold on Susan Bodine to lead the Environmental Protection Agency office that oversees Superfund and emergency cleanup programs because the agency had missed a deadline on new regulations for lead paint exposure.
In September 2006, Obama and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) blocked Robert L. Wilkie's nomination as a Defense Department assistant secretary over a long-delayed Pentagon report on Midwestern wind farms.
And Obama joined with other Democrats in October 2007 to block the nomination of Hans von Spakovsky to the Federal Election Commission. Von Spakovsky later withdrew; Wilkie and Bodine were eventually confirmed.
Asked about Obama's use of holds, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "The president respects the right of senators to express concern about the qualifications or suitability of a nominee, but there is an unacceptable pattern of Republicans using parliamentary moves to anonymously block noncontroversial nominees . . . in order to slow down progress on important issues."