The Senate ended its bitterly partisan health care debate last week with little-noticed harmony on confirmations, as more than five dozen picks by President Donald Trump were cleared for senior posts across the government.
But that spree of approvals still leaves the president with 147 nominees awaiting Senate action — significantly more than the previous four administrations had as of early August, according to a tally kept by the independent Partnership for Public Service.
Former President Barack Obama had 115 nonjudicial civilian nominees still waiting for Senate confirmation by Aug. 7 in his first term, while Bill Clinton had 87 and George H.W. Bush had 104, according to the Partnership.
Trump also lags in naming advisers to critical positions, with 354 of the 577 top jobs tracked by the Partnership still unfilled more than six months after his inauguration.
And despite the recent breakthrough, prospects remain unclear for ending the confirmation slowdown. Democrats have used procedural tools to drag out even run-of-the-mill approvals, infuriating Republicans.
The vacancies are particularly widespread at the State Department, where more than two dozen assistant secretary and undersecretary positions remain without a nominee. The openings have triggered alarm among Democrats, given Trump’s tough talk about North Korea.
But the Treasury, Education and Health and Human Services departments also lack confirmed deputy secretaries to serve as No. 2 to Trump’s Cabinet chiefs.
After being nudged toward obstruction by progressive activists, Democrats signaled they would cooperate on confirming noncontroversial nominees they had stalled once the GOP abandoned its Obamacare repeal push. After the repeal bill fell apart, Democrats agreed to let through more than 60 Trump nominees before going on recess last week. That sparked optimism from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the deal might serve as a model for further progress on confirmations next month despite Congress’ hefty to-do list.
McConnell noted in a floor speech after the approvals that “the Senate has confirmed more executive branch nominees this week than all of the executive branch nominees confirmed this year — combined.”
“Moving forward, I hope this agreement represents the way forward on confirming nominees so our government can be fully staffed and working for the American people,” the Kentucky Republican continued.
Some Democrats also suggested that the pre-recess confirmations could serve as a model for more bipartisan cooperation on nominations next month, particularly because Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) got something in return for greenlighting the nominees.
Schumer buttonholed Republicans at the Senate gym to seek unanimous support for quick “pro forma” sessions during this month’s break that would prevent the White House from making recess appointments, one source said. Such sessions commonly occurred during recesses in the Obama and Bush administrations but were not necessarily a foregone conclusion once the GOP took hold of both the presidency and Congress this year.
After Trump began suggesting he might replace Jeff Sessions with an attorney general more willing to rein in Robert Mueller, however, Schumer began prioritizing the "pro forma" meetings to avoid any threats to the special counsel investigating the president. Schumer gave McConnell advance notice before publicly calling for the use of short Senate sessions designed to block the White House from any controversial recess appointments.
"There was a lot of give and take," Schumer spokesman Matt House said by email. “Democrats got our Number One priority, which was to adjourn in a way that prevented a recess appointment of someone who would fire Mueller. Republicans got something they wanted too, in terms of the nominees filled, but Democrats did not let the controversial picks through.”
Among the nominations Democrats declined to unanimously sign off on before this month’s recess were Kevin Hassett, Trump’s pick to chair the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s bid for a new term.
Perhaps with that lingering obstruction in mind, few in the Senate GOP are ready to predict that the pre-recess confirmations deal points to any further cooperation from Democrats when lawmakers return to Washington next month.
“Democrats in the Senate are using unnecessary procedural hurdles because they don’t like the results of the presidential election,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) wrote in a Wednesday column.
One Senate GOP aide shrugged off Democrats’ attempts to link their nominations blockade to their exclusion from the debate over Obamacare repeal, noting that "they had plenty of excuses for their obstruction before health care. They blocked plenty of nominees before health care. So we’ll see."
McConnell and Schumer’s ability to keep the deal making going on nominations will no doubt be tested this fall. Lawmakers will return to the Capitol with a long legislative laundry list that includes funding the government, raising the debt limit and getting started on tax reform — all with a dwindling number of days left in session. On top of that, even the pre-recess approval binge leaves more nominees cooling their heels ahead of movement in the Senate (147) than the total number of confirmed Trump appointees (124).
Notably, two of those Trump nominees are subject to Democratic holds. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is blocking Steven Bradbury’s bid to join the Department of Transportation over his authorship of incendiary legal memos on enhanced interrogation during the George W. Bush administration, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) reportedly has a hold on Makan Delrahim, tapped to lead antitrust efforts at the Justice Department.