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In one of the first efforts at bipartisan goodwill -- or just plain cooperation -- the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday agreed to move forward 11 judicial nominations that had been languishing since the last session of Congress.
Though all of the nominees were deemed "noncontroversial," the move was seen as the first step in a deal made late last month between Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in the hope of creating a less divided, more efficient upper house.
Reform-minded advocates in the Senate have been pressing for official rules changes, including filibuster reform. For their part, McConnell and Reid instead made a non-binding agreement that their respective caucuses would forgo certain parliamentary procedures that had, in recent years, considerably slowed the business of the Senate. Included in the agreement was a reduction in the number of presidential nominations that would be subject to an extended confirmation process.
(Other provisions in the agreement are an end to "secret holds" and mandatory readings of amendments on the floor if they have been available to the public for at least three days; limits on the use of filibusters by Republicans, and a pledge by Democrats to allow a greater number of amendments to any bill, allowing the Republican minority a greater role in crafting legislation.)
President Obama spent much of last year lamenting what he deemed an "obstructionist" Congress bent on holding key nominations hostage. In a letter to members of the Judiciary Committee last September, the president wrote, "Despite the urgent and pressing need to fill these important posts, a minority of Senators has systematically and irresponsibly used procedural maneuvers to block or delay confirmation votes on judicial nominees -- including nominees that have strong bipartisan support."
Of the 11 judges cleared for a final vote, all have been awaiting confirmation since last summer, with one nominee named last March. The Judiciary Committee did not move forward with four other nominations, deemed to be "controversial" by Republicans on the committee. Their candidacies will be reviewed again at the next meeting of the committee.
The resolve for bipartisanship will likely be put to the test when the full Senate votes on the 11 nominees, possibly as early as next week before Senate Democrats leave for their annual retreat.
Should these noncontroversial nominees face a battle for confirmation, it will be a clear sign that the gentleman's agreement may not hold -- especially in the face of more controversial appointments. For the moment, though, the spirit of cooperation lives on.
Asked about the timetable for the final confirmation process, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's spokesman offered, "We will be discussing with Majority Leader [Harry] Reid how to begin moving them in an orderly fashion."
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