Reid Blasts Republicans Over Surgeon General Vote Delay, Other Holds and Filibusters

David Weigel

Republicans are holding up a vote to confirm Surgeon General nominee Regina Benjamin because, basically, of arguments over health care reform.

This article originally appeared at Washington Independent and is reprinted here in partnership with Washington Independent and the Center for Independent Journalism.

Republicans are holding up a vote to confirm Surgeon General nominee Regina Benjamin
because, basically, of arguments over health care reform. In the
context of Democrats buckling to Republican demands and holding two
hearings on the constitutionality of “czars,” it seemed especially
strange. Today, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made what I think is the
hardest-edged, most direct and sustained criticism of the Republican
minority’s campaign of holds and filibusters on Obama administration
and judicial nominees. He started with Benjamin.

“Right now we have no permanent Surgeon
General in place,” said Reid. “And the reason is as simple as it is
mind-boggling: Republicans in the Senate refuse to confirm President
Obama’s exceptionally qualified nominee for this job. I would try to
explain the Republican reason for their refusal, but as with so many
other things they oppose, a rationale simply doesn’t exist.  Senate
Republicans are simply so opposed to everything – absolutely everything
– that they even oppose putting people in some of the most important
positions in our government.”

Here’s Reid’s whole statement:

“Last week, four Nevadans tragically died from the H1N1
virus.  In Clark County, Nevada – the state’s most populous county and
the home of Las Vegas – 18 people have now died this year from H1N1.

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“We are all familiar with this strain of the flu – it has been on
the front pages for months.  This past weekend, President Obama
declared the outbreak a national emergency in anticipation of a rush of
patients to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms.

“Fortunately, for nearly 150 years the United States has had a
high-ranking official in place to serve as the government’s top
public-health officer.  We call that person the Surgeon General.

“Unfortunately, though, right now we have no permanent Surgeon
General in place.  And the reason is as simple as it is mind-boggling:
Republicans in the Senate refuse to confirm President Obama’s
exceptionally qualified nominee for this job.

“I would try to explain the Republican reason for their refusal, but
as with so many other things they oppose, a rationale simply doesn’t
exist.  Senate Republicans are simply so opposed to everything –
absolutely everything – that they even oppose putting people in some of
the most important positions in our government.

“Democrats, on the other hand, believe that those who have chosen to
serve our country must be able to get to work without delay.

“M. President, perhaps those watching and listening think this is
how the Senate always operates.  It is not.  Allow me to put these
delays in context:

“The Senate has confirmed 366 of President Obama’s nominees. How
does this compare historically?  At this point in President Bush’s
first term, 421 of his nominees were already at their desks.  At this
point in President Clinton’s first term, 379 nominees were on the job. 
And 480 of President Reagan’s nominees were confirmed.  But Senate
Republicans have only allowed President Obama 366.

“In fact, in the first four months of the Bush Administration, when
the Senate was controlled by the President’s party and we were in the
minority, there wasn’t a single filibuster of a Bush nominee.  Not one.

“But in the first four months of the Obama Administration,
Republicans filibustered eight of his nominees.  That means that
President Obama faced twice as many filibusters of his nominees in his
first four months as President Bush faced in his first four years.

“Now, those watching and listening may also understandably assume
that if this is not how the Senate always operates, there must be
something extraordinarily controversial about these nominees –
something highly objectionable, or even questionable.  Again, there is
not.

“As I mentioned, Republicans in the Senate refuse to confirm our
nation’s Surgeon General at a time when the President has declared a
national emergency over the H1N1 virus.  But President Obama’s nominee,
Regina Benjamin – a physician from Alabama and the founder of a
non-profit rural health clinic – is eminently qualified for the
position.

“That’s not all.  They also refuse to confirm the top official
responsible for science and technology in our Department of Homeland
Security.  For that position, President Obama nominated an expert in
combating both pandemics and bioterror attacks.  Imagine that:
Americans are bracing against a flu epidemic here at home and threats
of terrorism from abroad, the President nominated someone highly
experienced in both of those areas, and Republicans are saying no.

“If that sounds like something you wouldn’t want your Senate to do,
you might be even furthered concerned that it’s not the first time
these Republican Senators have done it.  While our sons and daughters
are fighting in Iraq and rebuilding that nation, Republicans earlier
this year delayed the confirmation of America’s ambassador to Iraq. 
And while troops serve bravely in Afghanistan, Republicans earlier this
year delayed the confirmation of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our new
commander in that difficult war.

“These telling examples are only the tip of the iceberg.  Allow me to continue:

“Months ago, President Obama picked a trade expert who worked in the
Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations to be this nation’s Deputy
Trade Representative.  But she has yet to officially join the Obama
administration.  Why?  Because a Republican Senator is holding up the
nomination over a bill that he thinks would hurt tobacco companies.

“If that seems like an unrelated, random reason to hold up this
qualified nominee, you might be even more outraged to learn that the
bill that so angers this Republican Senator is not even before the
United States Senate.  It’s not even in the United States House of
Representatives.  In fact, it’s not even in the United States.  The
bill is before the Canadian Parliament.  It should go without saying
that our Administration cannot dictate how the Canadian legislature
does it job, any more than the Canadian Parliament can dictate how we
do ours.  It should go without saying, but unfortunately, we evidently
must say it.

“Another example: President Obama nominated the former chief of
staff of the General Services Administration – which manages the basic
functions of our federal agencies – to lead that organization.  He
nominated her in April, on the first full day of the Major League
Baseball season.  Today, on the second day of the World Series, she
still remains unconfirmed for that job.  Why?  Because a Republican
Senator is demanding a federal building is built in his home state.

“One more example: President Obama asked an expert in Latin American
affairs – a man who has written books on regime change in that region
and has been a visiting scholar at Oxford and many other universities –
to be our nation’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere
affairs.

“Nearly half a year after he was nominated, one Republican Senator
still refuses to allow his confirmation to move forward.  This
Republican Senator is trying to force our nation to recognize a
military coup in Honduras, and so he is holding this nomination
hostage.  Most people would reasonably conclude that this nominee’s
expertise would be particularly useful at a time when there is a
diplomatic crisis in Central America.  But Senate Republicans don’t.

“These examples are not isolated.  They are part of a much larger
pattern.  Republicans this year have already gone to great lengths to
ensure President Obama cannot have his full team in place.

“They have already wasted taxpayers’ precious time and money by holding up the President’s nominees for:

  • the Secretary of Labor;
  • the Secretary of Health and Human Services;
  • the Director of National Drug Control Policy
  • the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior;
  • two members of the Council of Economic Advisors;
  • several Assistant Attorneys General;
  • and many others.

“These nominees finally broke through.  But their story doesn’t end
there.  When votes were finally called, they passed with flying colors:
They passed with vote counts of 89-2, 97-1, 88-0 and 97-0.  The numbers
don’t lie, and there’s no clearer evidence that many of these
objections are without merit.

“So it’s obvious that these objections are not the norm, that they are not based on qualifications, and that they are rampant.

“As far as Republicans are concerned, no one is too important to
block, no high-ranking position is too important to remain empty, no
problem is too urgent to delay.

“If I sound like a broken record, it’s because Senate Republicans
continue to be record-breakers.  Last year, after they held up the work
of Congress more than any other time in history, the American people
rejected the Republican status quo.  They said ‘no’ to Republicans’
just-say-no strategy.

“There is no question the American people are taking notice.  There
is no question they see these games for what they are.  There is no
question they are fed up with these petty, partisan tricks.  And there
is no question that these reckless tactics have consequences.

“I would say that Republicans delay and delay at their own peril –
but the truth is, all Americans suffer.  It’s time Republicans let us
get to work.”

Commentary Politics

Is Clinton a Progressive? Not If She Chooses Tim Kaine

Jodi Jacobson

The selection of Tim Kaine as vice president would be the first signal that Hillary Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton has frequently claimed to be a progressive, though she often adds the unnecessary and bewildering caveat that she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done.” I’ve never been sure what that is supposed to mean, except as a possible prelude to or excuse for giving up progressive values to seal some unknown deal in the future; as a way of excusing herself from fighting for major changes after she is elected; or as a way of saying progressives are only important to her campaign until after they leave the voting booth.

One of the first signals of whether Clinton actually believes in a progressive agenda will be her choice of running mate. Reports are that Sen. Tim Kaine, former Virginia governor, is the top choice. The selection of Kaine would be the first signal that Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

We’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed to be a progressive. By virtue of having a vision for and promise of real change in government and society, and by espousing transparency and responsibility, he won by a landslide. In fact, Obama even called on his supporters, including the millions activated by the campaign’s Organizing for Action (OFA), to keep him accountable throughout his term. Immediately after the election, however, “progressives” were out and the right wing of the Democratic party was “in.”

Obama’s cabinet members in both foreign policy and the economy, for example, were drawn from the center and center-right of the party, leaving many progressives, as Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied.” Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, a man with a reputation from the days of Bill Clinton’s White House for a reluctance to move bold policies—lest they upset Wall Street or conservative Democrats—and a deep disdain for progressives. With Emanuel as gatekeeper of policies and Valerie Jarrett consumed with the “Obama Brand” (whatever that is), the White House suddenly saw “progressives” as the problem.

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It became clear that instead of “the change we were hoping for,” Obama had started on an impossible quest to “cooperate” and “compromise” on bad policies with the very party that set out to destroy him before he was even sworn in. Obama and Emanuel preempted efforts to push for a public option for health-care reform, despite very high public support at the time. Likewise, the White House failed to push for other progressive policies that would have been a slam dunk, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a major goal of the labor movement that would have made it easier to enroll workers in unions. With a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority, this progressive legislation could easily have passed. Instead, the White House worked to support conservative Democrat then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s efforts to kill it, and even sent Vice President Joe Biden to Arkansas to campaign for her in her run for re-election. She lost anyway.

They also allowed conservatives to shelve plans for an aggressive stimulus package in favor of a much weaker one, for the sole sake of “bipartisanship,” a move that many economists have since criticized for not doing enough.  As I wrote years ago, these decisions were not only deeply disappointing on a fundamental level to those of us who’d put heart and soul into the Obama campaign, but also, I personally believe, one of the main reasons Obama later lost the midterms and had a hard time governing.  He was not elected to implement GOP lite, and there was no “there, there” for the change that was promised. Many people deeply devoted to making this country better for working people became fed up.

Standing up for progressive principles is not so hard, if you actually believe in them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D- MA) is a progressive who actually puts her principles into action, like the creation against all odds in 2011 of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, perhaps the single most important progressive achievement of the past 20 years. Among other things, the CFPB  shields consumers from the excesses of mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies that have caused so much economic chaos in the past decade. So unless you are more interested in protecting the status quo than addressing the root causes of the many problems we now face, a progressive politician would want a strong progressive running mate.

By choosing Tim Kaine as her vice president, Clinton will signal that she values progressives in name and vote only.

As Zach Carter wrote in the Huffington Post, Kaine is “setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.” Kaine is in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement largely negotiated in secret and by corporate lobbyists. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose voters Clinton needs to win over, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren oppose the TPP because, in Warren’s words, it “would tilt the playing field even more in favor of … big multinational corporations and against working families.”

The progressive agenda includes strong emphasis on effective systems of governance and oversight of banks and financial institutions—the actors responsible, as a result of deregulation, for the major financial crises of the past 16 years, costing the United States trillions of dollars and gutting the financial security of many middle-class and low-income people.

As Warren has stated:

Washington turned a blind eye as risks were packaged and re-packaged, magnified, and then sold to unsuspecting pension funds, municipal governments, and many others who believed the markets were honest. Not long after the cops were blindfolded and the big banks were turned loose, the worst crash since the 1930s hit the American economy—a crash that the Dallas Fed estimates has cost a collective $14 trillion. The moral of this story is simple: Without basic government regulation, financial markets don’t work. That’s worth repeating: Without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don’t work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That’s just an empirical fact—clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008. The point is worth repeating because, for too long, the opponents of financial reform have cast this debate as an argument between the pro-regulation camp and the pro-market camp, generally putting Democrats in the first camp and Republicans in the second. But that so-called choice gets it wrong. Rules are not the enemy of markets. Rules are a necessary ingredient for healthy markets, for markets that create competition and innovation. And rolling back the rules or firing the cops can be profoundly anti-market.

If Hillary Clinton were actually a progressive, this would be key to her agenda. If so, Tim Kaine would be a curious choice as VP, and a middle finger of sorts to those who support financial regulations. In the past several weeks, Kaine has been publicly advocating for greater deregulation of banks. As Carter reported yesterday, “Kaine signed two letters on Monday urging federal regulators to go easy on banks―one to help big banks dodge risk management rules, and another to help small banks avoid consumer protection standards.”

Kaine is also trying to portray himself as “anti-choice lite.” For example, he recently signed onto the Women’s Health Protection Act. But as we’ve reported, as governor of Virginia, Kaine supported restrictions on abortion, such as Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law, which, he claimed in 2008, gave “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” In truth, the information such laws mandate giving out is often “irrelevant or misleading,” according to the the Guttmacher Institute. In other words, like many others who let ideology rather than public health guide their policy decisions, Kaine put in place policies that are not supported by the evidence and that make it more difficult for women to gain access to abortion, steps he has not denounced. This is unacceptable. The very last thing we need is another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion, though it must be said Clinton herself seems chronically unable to speak about abortion without euphemism.

While there are many other reasons a Kaine pick would signal a less-than-secure and values-driven Clinton presidency, the fact also stands that he is a white male insider at a time when the rising electorate is decidedly not white and quite clearly looking for strong leadership and meaningful change. Kaine is not the change we seek.

The conventional wisdom these days is that platforms are merely for show and vice presidential picks don’t much matter. I call foul; that’s an absolutely cynical lens through which to view policies. What you say and with whom you affiliate yourself do indeed matter. And if Clinton chooses Kaine, we know from the outset that progressives have a fight on their hands, not only to avoid the election of an unapologetic fascist, but to ensure that the only person claiming the progressive mantle actually means what she says.

Commentary Law and Policy

Republicans Make History in Obstructing Merrick Garland for Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Merrick Garland is now officially the longest Supreme Court nominee to go without confirmation hearings or a vote in U.S. history.

Merrick Garland, President Obama’s selection to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, now has the dubious distinction of being the longest U.S. Supreme Court nominee ever to go without a vote to confirm or reject his appointment, thanks to Senate Republicans’ refusal to do their jobs.

I can’t say it any differently. This has been an utter, total failure by grown men, and a few women, in the Senate to do the kind of thing they’re supposed to in exchange for getting paid by the rest of us. And after nearly a decade of unprecedented—and I mean unprecedentedobstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees writ large, there’s no flowery language that can capture how our federal courts’ slow burn on the the Republicans’ watch has now caught full fire with the fight over Garland’s nomination.

Instead what we have are dry, hard facts. A century ago, Justice Louis Brandeis was forced to wait 125 days before his confirmation to become the first Jewish justice on the Court. Justice Scalia died on February 13 of this year. President Obama nominated Garland on March 16. Wednesday marked 126 days of zero Senate action on that nomination.

And since Congress is now on recess, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

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It’s not just that the Senate hasn’t held a vote. They have held no hearings. Several senators have refused to meet with Garland. They have taken. No. Action. Not a bit. And here’s the kicker: None of us should be surprised.

President Obama had no sooner walked off the Rose Garden lawn after announcing Garland’s nomination in March than Senate Republicans announced their plan to sit on it until after the presidential election. Eight months away. In November.

Senate Republicans’ objection isn’t to Garland himself. He’s a moderate who has generally received bipartisan praise and support throughout his career and should, on any other day, sail through the confirmation process. As compared with both of President Obama’s other appointments, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Garland is practically a gift to Senate Republicans in all his moderate-aging-white-guy-ness. I mean, who would have thought that of all the nominees Republicans were going to double-down their obstruction efforts on, it would be Justice Dad?

Instead, their objection is to the fact that the democratic process should guarantee they lose control of the Supreme Court. Unless, of course, they can stop that process.

Conservatives have spent decades investing in the federal courts as a partisan tool. They did so by building an infrastructure of sympathetic conservative federal judges through appointments when in executive power, and by blocking liberal attempts to do the same when in the political minority. It’s an investment that has largely paid off. Federal circuit appeals courts like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth issue reliably conservative opinions regularly, thanks to aggressive appointments by conservatives during the Reagan and Bush years.

Meanwhile, thanks to conservative obstruction under Democratic administrations—most egregiously under President Obama—71 district court seats currently sit vacant. Twenty-four of those seats are in jurisdictions considered by the courts themselves to be judicial emergencies: places where the caseload is so great or the seat has remained vacant for so long the court is at risk of no longer functioning.

It’s easy to see why conservatives would want to keep their grip on the federal judiciary given the kinds of issues before it: These are the courts that hear immigration and detention cases, challenges to abortion restrictions, employment discrimination cases, as well as challenges to voting rights restrictions. Just to name a few. But as long as there are no judges, the people being directly affected are left in limbo as their cases drag on and on and on.

Our federal courts of appeals are no better. Nine federal appellate seats sit vacant, five in jurisdictions deemed judicial emergencies.

These vacancies have nominees. Senate Republicans just refuse to confirm them.

And no, the other side doesn’t do this. Federal judgeships have always been political. But never have the Democrats used the judiciary as a blatantly partisan extension of their elected members.

The refusal to vote on Garland’s nomination is the most visible example of the conservatives’ drive to maintain control over the federal courts, but it’s hardly their most blatant display of sheer partisanship. I’m guessing that is yet to come when, should they lose the presidential election, Senate Republicans face the choice of quickly confirming Garland or continuing their stand-off indefinitely. And given what we’ve seen of the election cycle so far, do we really think Senate Republicans are going to suddenly grow up and do their jobs? I hate to say it, folks, but Merrick Garland isn’t getting confirmed anytime soon.