Officially, House Democrats have no say over presidential nominations. Unofficially, they’re wading knee-deep into confirmations they think the party is botching.
Top Congressional Black Caucus members are steaming that the Biden administration isn’t adequately consulting them on judicial nominees. Swing-district Democrats want the Senate to pick up the pace on filling key vacancies. And progressives are furious that the chamber still hasn’t considered Julie Su’s nomination as Labor secretary.
The Senate broke for a recess on Thursday with no plans to vote on Su, whom Biden nominated in late February to be his administration’s first Asian American Cabinet secretary. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a member of the progressive “squad,” called it “racist” and “embarrassing” that the Senate hadn’t advanced her nomination.
“It’s once again the party harming itself,” he said, adding he hoped undecided senators will “get on board.”
It’s a reflection of House Democrats’ growing frustration in the minority, where the party and its powerful Black Caucus have little sway over legislation. Instead, they’re trying to exert power by catching the ear of the president, his top aides and the Democratic Senate — sometimes prompting intra-party tension as House lawmakers step into already crowded lanes.
Under split government, the Democratic Senate has spent much of its time this year on nominees, including an array of diverse judges with progressive bona fides as well as several with Republican backing. Still, House Democrats are smarting that their Senate colleagues aren’t more aggressive in their tactics. And senators are brushing off some of the suggestions from the lower chamber.
The Black Caucus met with White House chief of staff Jeff Zients last week and advocated for changes to Senate precedent that would make it easier to confirm defense and judicial nominees. They’re not yet convinced, though, that the White House will be receptive to their broader concerns about the lack of input top Black Democrats have on nominees.
“The proof will be in the pudding. The action — we haven’t seen that,” Black Caucus member Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.) said in an interview. “So we’re hopeful that we will get some action soon … but as of right now, we’re still waiting.”
Carter may best exemplify House Democrats’ frustrations. He wants the White House to pull two judicial nominees in his state that were OK’d by Louisiana’s GOP senators — a necessity under the current nomination process — and says he wasn’t properly consulted as the only Democratic lawmaker from the state.
Under Senate customs, home state senators are able to unilaterally stop a nominee by refusing to return what are called blue slips. On the Louisiana judgeships, the two Republican senators negotiated with the White House for two years before the nominations of Jerry Edwards Jr. and Brandon Scott Long were rolled out earlier this month.
“I’ve been very clear on my position of blue slips. I think they’re antiquated. I think they’re vestiges of Jim Crow, and they should be abolished,” Carter said.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who just returned blue slips for the two nominees, called Carter a “good man” but advised him to take his complaints to the White House. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has rejected calls to scrap the blue slip process, said he would move forward on the confirmations.
“We went through the process honestly, directly as I had hoped they would. And I’m not going to back away from it at this point,” Durbin said.
Then there’s Scott Colom, a potential Mississippi judicial nominee, who is being denied a blue slip by Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.). Former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) said he is encouraging Colom to keep fighting, hoping the Senate will find a way around one senator’s blockade.
“Maybe this is a circumstance where the blue slip should not be honored,” Jones said.
Senate Democrats’ refusal to change the blue slip process is aggravating members of the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whom hail from blue districts in Republican southern states who believe the deference to red-state senators deprives Democratic lawmakers of a voice.
“Durbin, as chair of the Judiciary Committee, has unilateral authority to change, reform, and at least modify the practices of the blue slip, and it’s in the administration’s best interest that they do it,” said Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chair of the Black Caucus. Horsford is also pushing for a rules change to circumvent Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) hold on military promotions, though senators are trying to find another solution first.
Durbin acknowledged the concern about getting blue slips in red states and said he’s “frustrated because Republican senators aren’t moving quickly enough.” Still, he’s hardly alone in his reluctance: Many Democrats see the slips as a way to retain some influence the next time a Republican wins the White House. And for an often dysfunctional Senate, the Louisiana nominees are widely viewed as a success.
The level of House interest in Democrats’ nomination process is deep in the weeds. Just last week, a group of Democrats led by Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) sent a letter to Biden urging him to nominate a new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a job that’s been vacant after the withdrawal of Ann Carlson’s nomination. The White House confirmed to the group that they received the letter.
“It’s an important position to fill,” Lee said. “So I think it’s something that needs to happen sooner rather than later.”
For now, Democrats seem most concerned with Su’s stalled status, which is frustrating Senate and House progressives alike. Key senators, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) remain publicly undecided on her nomination, leaving her in limbo.
“There are some people who think: ‘Don’t bring up anything unless you’re guaranteed the votes,’” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “That’s not my view. My belief is that under democracy, your constituents have a right to know where you come from.”
Sanders would be comfortable keeping Su in the job as an acting Labor secretary even if she falls short of confirmation. But the White House does not want to hold a failed vote on her nomination, according to a Democratic aide granted anonymity to discuss strategy.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in an interview that Su is “a great nominee and we’re still working it, the White House is working it.”
Schumer has touted the diverse slate of judges and nominees that have gone through the Senate in the past two and a half years. The Senate just confirmed Biden’s 100th district court judge, augmenting its 35 appeals court judges and Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
White House spokesperson Emilie Simons touted Su’s credentials for the top labor job, including Democrats’ support for her deputy job and “support from business and labor groups across the spectrum.”
Biden’s lost some nominees to Senate politics, but overall his confirmation record in the chamber is strong given Democrats’ narrow majorities. But the victories aren’t enough to satisfy many House Democrats at the moment; they’re focused on the fight in front of them.
“I still remain confident that Julie is going to pull through,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who’s helped lead the Asian Caucus’ advocacy for her.
House lawmakers say the upper chamber is moving too slowly on key nominations and that the president needs to consult with them more — despite them having no official role in the process.