POLITICS
05/16/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jim Bunning's Back: Blocking Nominees Over Canadian Smoking Law

Jim Bunning, far from being cowed by the national exposure of his recent effort to hold up unemployment benefits for millions of laid-off workers, is back at it in the Senate.

The Kentucky Republican battled Democrats on the Senate floor Tuesday to block two nominations to relatively backbench positions -- because he is opposed to a tobacco-related law passed by the Canadian Parliament (that's right, the Canadian Parliament). The use of such delaying tactics is not unprecedented in Senate history, but holding up such minor business stretches the purpose of the Senate's open debate rules to the breaking point.

"This is a perversion of the filibuster and a perversion of the role of the Senate. It used to be that the filibuster was reserved for matters of great principle," said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) from the well of the Senate. "Some of my colleagues seem more interested in using every procedural method possible to keep the Senate from doing anything than they are in creating jobs or helping Americans struggling in a difficult economy."

Bunning, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, is blocking the nominations of Michael Punke and Islam Siddiqui. Punke was nominated to be the Deputy U.S. Trade Representative and was unanimously recommended by the Senate Finance Committee three months ago.

Siddiqui has been tapped to be the Chief Agriculture Negotiator. With the position unfilled, the U.S. is at a trade disadvantage with other countries. A coalition of 42 food and agriculture groups wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in January to urge his confirmation.

The Senate is backed up with 88 unconfirmed nominees, 83 more than the Bush administration faced at this point in its tenure.

"I think you get the picture that this is a list of systematic efforts to undermine the ability of the executive branch to do its job," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), urging the nominees to be moved through if there are no real objections. "So I call upon my Republican colleagues who are conducting this attack on the president and his team to honor their constitutional responsibilities to advise and consent, to this list, and if there are a couple key nominees that you have serious concerns about, then indeed let's have that debate here on the floor."

The continuing obstruction is building a Democratic case for reform of Senate rules. Even conservative Democrat Mark Warner (D-Va.) said on Tuesday that enough was getting close to becoming enough. "Some of the very safeguards that were created to make this a serious and responsible deliberative body have been abused in a way that damages this institution. In some instances, this abuse also runs contrary to our national interest," he said.

Watch Franken on the floor: