The confirmation of 27 presidential nominees late Thursday is being hailed as a major victory for the Obama White House after a political showdown with Senate Republicans over their foot-dragging.
But the sentiment is not shared by all. In the halls of the Senate, Republicans insist that the nominations were non-controversial and part of regular parliamentary order.
"Anyone who's been in this town more than a few days knows we clear a bloc of nominees before recess," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). "This should not have been a surprise to anyone."
The president still came up short in getting some of the bigger names confirmed -- most notably National Labor Relations Board appointee Craig Becker.
Democrats, likewise, aren't universally thrilled with the deal stuck on Thursday night. A party leadership aide called the pool of confirmations a "step in the right direction" but not one that makes up "for the months we've wasted on the floor. There are still so many more to get through."
The general complaint is that Obama should have been more aggressive and sooner. After all, a united effort by the administration and allied groups and activists to take political advantage of the obstruction of Senate Republicans clearly worked for the White House. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) dropped his blanket hold on all Obama appointees just days after the president began whacking away at the national security and governance implications of such an act. McConnell, likewise, moved forward on a pool of confirmations shortly after being chewed out by Obama at a White House meeting. The idea that the administration would only muck things up by meddling in Congress's business -- as trumpeted ad nauseam during the health care debate -- was effectively disproved.
But by the time the president and his team jumped into action, the definition of what constituted a victory had been largely skewed. Despite winning his "showdown" with Senate GOP leadership, more than half of Obama's appointments remain unconfirmed -- which places the president well behind his predecessor. As Obama's own press secretary, Robert Gibbs, noted at Thursday's briefing, there were 63 nominees who have been waiting for a vote for more than a month, "when in a comparable period of time in the Bush administration that number was six."
More shocking to some, especially those in the labor community, was the president's willingness to reward McConnell for the move. In a statement released on Thursday night, Obama called the confirmations "a good first step" though with "dozens of nominees" still needing a vote. In the interim -- he implied and aides confirmed -- there will not be recess appointments, which allow the White House to circumvent the Senate.
"I will be looking for action from the Senate when it returns from recess," Obama said. "If they do not act, I reserve the right to use my recess appointment authority in the future."
The president, in short, delayed the possibility of getting Becker on the NLRB to the next Senate recess on March 29. Just days earlier, one of the most powerful union leaders in the country, Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, urged Obama to use a recess appointment to get Becker into the post. Another union official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the concession to McConnell "insane."
White House officials did not return requests for comment. Despite the disappointment expressed by some of its allies, the administration and others are encouraged by the confirmation of these 27 nominees. The White House proved it has the capacity to spearhead the legislative debate, after months of suggesting that the best blueprint was to let Congress operate on its own. More than that, the administration made clear that Republicans are in the business of obstructionism. And clearly, McConnell blinked, realizing that it was politically toxic to be tagged with that reputation.