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Vacancies Threaten National Security: After Recess, President Obama Demands Senate Action

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It sometimes happens during the Valentine's holiday season. A relationship needs shaking up. A dysfunctional pattern must be broken. Sometimes it takes an ultimatum -- things must change or else.

That is the message Barack Obama personally delivered to Senate Republican leaders as they prepared to leave town for their Valentine's Day/Presidents' Day recess. The president delivered his valentine -- a recess appointment ultimatum.

Obama's appointment confrontation did not come a day too early. Republican confirmation obstruction, which kept important government offices vacant for the entire first year of Obama's presidency, threatens national security. Vacant critical defense, state, and intelligence posts jeopardize our omni-front war against Al-Qaeda. Unfilled homeland security, justice, and court positions further weaken our domestic security.

Republican Senators holding important national security and justice positions vacant while extorting provincial pork must be exposed and shamed.

Reid Outs Coburn's Hold Against Key National Security Post

On the Tuesday evening after the president delivered his ultimatum, Majority Leader Harry Reid had a brief breakthrough -- forcing confirmations through simple unanimous consent agreements. Reid finally got Republicans to release two intelligence/national security nominees who were blocked for months.

But then - Reid regretfully announced a new Republican hold blocking a third critically important domestic intelligence post.

An individual Senator's confirmation hold is usually communicated anonymously to a party leader, who delivers the black ball to the majority leadership. Anonymity is preserved. Not so, that night. Reid outed Sen. Tom Coburn as the obstructionist whose hold threatened national security.

As transcribed in the Congressional Record, Reid explained that the "junior senator from Oklahoma" had objected to unanimous consent to fill the Department of Homeland Security's Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis vacancy. Reid emphasized that the hold was not based on the nominees' background or competency.

Obama's nominee was Caryn Wagner, a 30-year veteran intelligence expert. The DHS position was created in response to the brutal lessons of September 11, 2001, to focus domestic intelligence gathering, analysis, and sharing.

No Excuse for Coburn's National Security Obstruction

Tom Coburn's hold was insult to obstruction injury for Caryn Wagner. She was one of the 67 nominee-hostages released that day from Richard "$45 billion" Shelby's "'blanket-hold." (Shelby retains holds on three top Defense Department nominees and demands $45 billion in ransom.)

Why did Coburn block her confirmation? The record is unclear. In discussing the Wagner hold, Reid alluded to a Republican who did "not like a decision that has been made as to where a building is to be built." Was the critically important intelligence position being blocked because a Republican Senator wanted a building built in his State? The public may never know; those are the secret ways of the Senate fraternity.

Whatever the nature of the pork or amount of Coburn's demand, it was likely chump change compared to the $45 billion demand by his Alabama obstruction confederate. And, it's not the amount that matters.

What matters is how little the Republican caucus seems to care about national security. Wagner received a unanimous vote from the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2009. All agree she is a superb fit. There was no excuse for Coburn's keeping the Intelligence Chief post vacant.

Republican obstruction is a national security threat. Examine the Coburn DHS hold, the Shelby Defense Department holds and Jim DeMint's shamefully successful Transportation Security Agency chief hold. Individual Republican Senators' provincial demands jeopardize our nation's security. And, the Republican caucus supports their irresponsible acts by preventing cloture.

Reid: "Recess Appoint All of Them"

Coburn's national security hold gave Reid an opportunity to restate his recess appointment views, "I have told the President enough is enough. He has the right, as President of the United States, to do recess appointments. It should be done." Reid was adamant: "What is being done to this President is unfair. It has never been done before."

Reid correctly called the GOP pattern of confirmation obstruction "disgraceful," and stated, "I think, frankly, the president should recess [appoint] all of them. All of them."

The Republican caucus should take note. The Senate Majority Leader has spoken before about the harm confirmation obstruction is causing to national security. Reid is so concerned that he would circumvent the entire Senate confirmation process.

Republicans Capitulate

Perhaps it was a combination of the President's ultimatum and Reid's "recess appoint all of them" comment. In a little more than 48 hours, the Republicans blinked.

Just as the Senate recessed for the long holiday, 27 nominees for executive and regulatory offices were confirmed by unanimous consent.

Homeland Security will soon have an Intelligence Chief - "soon" meaning after the Administration has entered its second year. Caryn Wagner was among the 27 officials confirmed. Coburn understood the ultimatum.

That night, the president released a statement discussing the problem of confirmation obstruction, referencing the ultimatum, and rightfully claiming the night's accomplishment. The president described the Senate action as only a "good first step" and forcefully restated his intent to use the recess authority: "I will be looking for action from the Senate when it returns from recess. If they do not act, I reserve the right to use my recess appointment authority in the future."

Obama won a modest confirmation victory, proving again that he is actively involved in lobbying for his nominees. His Administration is now fully aware that the president cannot "move beyond the confirmation wars." Barack Obama must resource, fight, and win this conflict.

The president strategically claimed high ground in the fight by allowing the Republican caucus one last chance to end their obstruction. But, it must be their last chance. Nothing less than the national security of this nation is at stake. After recess, Senate confirmations must come quick and steady.

Surely, the Republican caucus understands Obama's constitutional duty to fill the vacancies. Valentine's Day/President's Day ultimatum was clear; partisan politics can not be allowed to "stand in the way of a well-functioning government"

Recess Will Come Again

Now in his second year, the commander-in-chief cannot accept further obstruction insults. None of the six nominees that were rudely returned to the White House at Christmas, and that Obama renominated, were on the Valentine's list of 27. Four of these six positions are immediately needed for the government's well functioning and domestic security: Craig Becker (NLRB); Dawn Johnsen (Justice-Office of Legal Counsel); Christopher Schroeder (DOJ--Office of Legal Policy); Mary Smith (DOJ--Tax Division).

Dawn Johnsen was not even eligible for the list of 27, as Republicans have blocked and delayed her Judiciary Committee rehearing for weeks.

There are still nearly 300 high level federal vacancies; including 100 empty federal benches. Second-year departures from the Administration have begun, and by summer many more federal judges (and perhaps a Supreme Court justice or two) plan to retire.

All the GOP has to do is to stop objecting; just allow majority rule. If individual Republicans, like DeMint, Shelby and Coburn, continue to hold our government hostage, threatening both national security and domestic justice, the Constitutional Option will become an imperative.

The Senate's spring break is only weeks away. President Barack Obama may yet heed Harry Reid's excellent advice: "Recess appoint all of them, all of them."

(Victor Williams is an attorney in Washington D.C. and clinical assistant professor at Catholic University of America School of Law. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect those of CUA).

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