Senate Holds, Filibusters, and the “Nuclear” Option

02.08.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Last week, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) placed a “hold” on all of the Obama Administration nominations that are pending before the Senate, thereby preventing a vote on their confirmation.  There are said to be at least 70 such nominations awaiting Senate action, including those of several senior defense and intelligence officials.  Sen. Shelby, a man of flexible principles who has served as both a Democrat and a Republican, reportedly adopted the blanket holds in an attempt to compel the Administration to award certain defense contracts to his home state of Alabama.

Shelby’s action is “outlandish,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on the Senate floor last Thursday.  But that was as far as he was prepared to go, or perhaps farther than he intended to go.  Striking a tactical retreat, he immediately added: “I can’t imagine this is the right thing to do.”

The new obstructionism has the potential to cripple the U.S. government, warned Paul Krugman today in the New York Times, and to do so in a particularly pointless and humiliating way:  “Instead of re-enacting the decline and fall of Rome, we’re re-enacting the dissolution of 18th-century Poland,” he wrote.

Confronted with rampant irresponsibility and procedural abuse, the White House and the Majority party are not — or should not be — helpless to respond.  In theory, their options include recess appointments to circumvent the Senate confirmation process, and the so-called “nuclear” option to alter existing Senate procedures.  These alternatives, along with related background, have been usefully described in a series of reports from the Congressional Research Service (all pdf).

“Recess Appointments: Frequently Asked Questions,” updated March 12, 2008.

“‘Entrenchment’ of Senate Procedure and the ‘Nuclear Option’ for Change: Possible Proceedings and Their Implications,” March 28, 2005.

“Cloture Attempts on Nominations,” March 30, 2009.

“‘Holds’ in the Senate,” May 19, 2008.

“Senate Policy on ‘Holds’: Action in the 110th Congress,” March 14, 2008.

“Filibusters and Cloture in the Senate,” March 28, 2003.

“Minority Rights and Senate Procedures,” August 22, 2005.

Update: Late Monday night, Sen. Shelby released most of his holds on pending nominees.