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Obama, Lawmakers Meeting On Court Nominee

President Obama meets with top Senate Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday at the White House. The subject is a nomination the president has yet to make: his choice for the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice John Paul Stevens.

Meanwhile, scores of other nominations that the president has made for key posts remain hostage to a Senate procedure known as "the hold." Each one can take days to break. Senate Democrats went on the offensive this week to move those stalled nominations.

As the week began, 99 of Obama's executive and judicial branch nominees were stalled by holds, in some cases for more than a year. A hold is essentially a threat to filibuster a nomination.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said Republicans are simply trying to score political points against the president.

"This is not about controversial nominees," Whitehouse said. "This is about politics, plain and simple -- bare-knuckled politics of obstruction."

What it's led to is a pileup of nominations and a lot of bad blood.

"It is the worst ever," said Paul Light, a presidential nominations expert at New York University.

He said dragging out confirmations is nothing new, and both Democrats and Republicans have done it. But he said the current delays are unprecedented, and word has spread that the nomination ordeal is not worth it.

"What I hear is that two, three, four people are refusing invitations to serve before they get to one who'll go through this process," Light added. "It has just become a very ugly process, very dispiriting."

Take, for example, a nominee the Senate finally confirmed Tuesday. Half of the Republicans and all of the Democrats voted to confirm Lael Brainard as the Treasury Department's undersecretary for international affairs -- 13 months after she was nominated.

Republicans raised questions about tax deductions she had taken. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) urged colleagues not to confirm her.

"This is not just a matter of taxes -- it is a matter of trust," Bunning said.

Unlike most of the current holds, Bunning's was public.

As Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) pointed out, most senators won't acknowledge having put holds on nominees.

"You want to know why this, the country, doesn't trust us," McCaskill asked. "It's because of this kind of nonsense, this kind of secret hold shenanigans."

McCaskill said 80 or so nominees remain stalled by secret holds, and she's trying to reveal the holds' authors by demanding votes on those nominees.

No. 2 Senate Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona objected to McCaskill's request for votes. He did so on behalf of colleagues whose names he did not reveal.

"I am not defending a lot of holds," Kyl said.

When asked if he thought holds had gotten excessive, Kyle answered, "They might well be; I don't know."

The irony, said nominations expert Light, is that Obama has had to go around the Senate to fill out his team.

"There are a lot of these jobs that are now filled by acting officials or non-Senate confirmed presidential appointees, and the Senate should be outraged by it," Light said. "Yet, they dither with these holds that result in very significant problems with governing."

The Democrats' nominations offensive seems to be working.

Two long-stalled district court judges got confirmed Tuesday, and holds were lifted on a nominee for assistant attorney general and two for circuit courts -- they'll be voted on Wednesday and Thursday.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Steve Inskeep.

Today, President Obama meets leading senators, they will discuss a nomination he has yet to make - his choice for a Supreme Court seat. When he meets those senators, he will know they have yet to act on scores of his other nominations. Those nominees are being held hostage by a Senate tradition any senator can privately put a hold on a nomination, meaning that the choice for a government office is stopped; and Republicans have done that again and again.

Now, Democrats have gone on the offensive.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: As the week began, 99 of President Obama's executive and judicial branch nominees were stalled by holds, in some cases for more than a year. A hold is essentially a threat to filibuster a nomination.

Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse says Republicans are simply trying to score political points against the president.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): This is not about controversial nominees. This is about politics, plain and simple; bare-knuckled politics of obstruction.

WELNA: What it's led to is a pileup of nominations and a lot of bad blood.

Professor PAUL LIGHT (Wagner School of Public Service, New York University): It is the worst ever.

WELNA: That's presidential nominations expert Paul Light of New York University. He says dragging out confirmations is nothing new, and both Democrats and Republicans have done it. But, he says, the delays now are unprecedented, and word has spread that the nomination ordeal is not worth it.

Prof. LIGHT: Anecdotally, what I hear is that two, three, four people are refusing invitations to serve before they get to one who'll go through this process. It has just become a very ugly process, very dispiriting.

WELNA: Take, for example, a nominee the Senate did finally confirm yesterday. Half the Republicans and all the Democrats voted to confirm Lael Brainard as the Treasury Department's undersecretary for international affairs - 13 months after she was nominated. Republicans raised questions about tax deductions she'd taken.

Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning urged colleagues not to confirm her.

Senator JIM BUNNING (Republican, Kentucky): This is not just a matter of taxes, it is a matter of trust.

WELNA: Unlike most of the current holds, Bunning's was public. As Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill pointed out yesterday, most senators won't acknowledge having put holds on nominees.

Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): You want to know why the country doesn't trust us. It's 'cause of this kind of nonsense, this kind of secret hold shenanigans.

WELNA: McCaskill says 80 or so nominees remain stalled by secret holds, and she's trying to reveal the holds' authors by demanding votes on those nominees.

Yesterday, Number Two Senate Republican Jon Kyl objected to McCaskill's requests for votes. He did so on behalf of colleagues whose names he did not reveal. Kyl says fewer holds would be better.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): I am not defending a lot of holds. And I - though I was...

WELNA: Do you think they're excessive right now?

Sen. KYL: They might well be. I don't know.

WELNA: The irony, says nominations expert Paul Light, is that President Obama has had to go around the Senate to fill out his team.

Prof. LIGHT: There are a lot of these jobs that are now filled by acting officials or non-Senate confirmed presidential appointees, and the Senate should be outraged by it. Yet, they dither with these holds that result in very significant problems with governing.

WELNA: The Democrats' nomination offensive does seem to be working. Two long-stalled district court judges got confirmed yesterday. And holds were lifted on a nominee for assistant attorney general and two for circuit courts - they'll be voted on today and tomorrow.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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