WASHINGTON — Ending a monthslong stalemate, the Senate voted Tuesday to fill five vacancies on the Federal Election Commission, putting the nation's election watchdog back in business.
"I'm pleased we can finally come together," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, shortly before the Senate approved the nominations on a unanimous vote. With the White House and Senate at loggerheads over who should fill the vacancies, Reid said: "There's been no FEC."
That's been a source of frustration for the Democratic National Committee, which went to federal court Tuesday to demand an investigation into the campaign finances of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. The DNC wants the FEC to rule on whether the presumptive Republican presidential nominee illegally withdrew from the federal financing system.
In ordinary times, the FEC would answer that question, but these have not been ordinary times. The FEC has had only two commissioners since December, too few to conduct any official business. It takes four affirmative votes to conduct audits, pursue litigation or make regulatory changes.
Some say it has been like having a World Series without an umpire.
Republicans accused the Senate's Democratic leaders of dragging their feet on voting on FEC nominees. On Friday, Reid wouldn't allow a vote when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky urged the Senate to consider the issue immediately.
"There always seems to be a snag, and the snags always seem to be on the other side," McConnell said. After Tuesday night's vote, he said that filling the vacancies was "long overdue," adding: "I'm glad that Democratic obstruction on the nominees is over."
The nominations passed the Senate Rules Committee in May. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the committee, said it was "unconscionable that in the middle of a presidential election year, with campaign committees spending millions of dollars, that we don't have our federal election watchdog in place."
The DNC sued the FEC on Tuesday in federal court in Washington, saying that the agency had failed to act on the McCain complaint, which the committee filed earlier this year. The DNC alleges that McCain agreed to abide by spending limits during the primary, then put up matching funds that he expected to receive as collateral for a loan to keep his faltering campaign going. After getting the loan, McCain told the FEC that he wouldn't honor his agreement, according to the DNC.
The Republican National Committee disputes that version of events, saying that McCain never received any primary matching funds and therefore isn't subject to the primary campaign spending limit. And the RNC says that no entitlements to public funds were used to secure a loan.
McConnell suggested that Senate Democrats wanted to delay a vote on the FEC nominees until the DNC filed "yet another frivolous lawsuit." He accused the Democrats of using "shenanigans, which I don't think we ought to export from the campaign to the Senate."
Reid said he'd held up a vote Friday because he was waiting for an unnamed senator to have "one more conversation with one of the nominees." He told McConnell that Democrats were ready to approve the nominees before Memorial Day but that Republicans objected at the time.
"We can do a lot of finger-pointing," Reid said.