WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama reignited a partisan fight over appointments Saturday when he announced his intention to fill 15 key vacant administration positions -- that normally require Senate approval -- while Congress is adjourned for vacation.
Saying he was tired of obstructionist Republican senators blocking his nominees for political purposes, Obama said he would resort to recess appointments to fill the jobs.
"The United States Senate has the responsibility to approve or disapprove of my nominees," Obama said Saturday. "At a time of economic emergency, two top appointees to the Department of Treasury have been held up for nearly six months. I simply cannot allow partisan politics to stand in the way of the basic functioning of the government."
But Republicans say it's Obama who's playing a partisan game. They accused him of trying to score political points with labor unions and others who supported his 2008 presidential campaign.
Of the 15 appointments, Obama's choice of Craig Becker for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board generated the most criticism. Republicans and business groups have steadfastly opposed Becker, who served as a lawyer for the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, contending that he's too cozy with unions.
"The president's decision to override bipartisan Senate rejection of Craig Becker's nomination is yet another episode of choosing a partisan path despite bipartisan opposition," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Saturday. "The president previously held that appointing an individual in this manner meant that the nominee would have 'less credibility,' and that assessment certainly fits this nomination."
The Senate failed to advance Becker's nomination in February when Democrats came eight votes short of ending debate on his nomination and allowing it to proceed to a final vote.
Senate Republicans wrote Obama a letter Thursday asking him not to name Becker to the board. The letter came after some Democrats close to the administration predicted it would happen, but also after Chief Justice John G. Roberts, a Republican nominee, questioned why Obama hadn't yet used his recess powers to fill the five-member board, which, with three vacancies, hasn't been able to function.
Business groups Saturday blasted Obama's selection of Becker, while pro-union groups hailed the president's action.
"Overriding the will of the Senate and providing this special interest payback contradicts the president's claim to change the tone in Washington," said Randel Johnson, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior vice president. "The business community should be on red alert for radical changes that could significantly impair the ability of America's job creators to compete."
But Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of the pro-union American Rights at Work said "America's workers need a fully functioning NLRB to mediate their claims for better wages, benefits and other rights now more than ever - and after two long years they have one."
Presidents seldom opt for recess appointments because of the political fallout generated. They use the process either to install someone too controversial to overcome a Senate filibuster, or to fill key spots being held up for unrelated reasons by senators who are trying to secure local projects or use the nominee as leverage in an ideological fight.
President George W. Bush bypassed the Senate confirmation process this way at least 171 times, the Congressional Research Service found. President Bill Clinton did it 139 times.
In 2005 when he was a senator, Obama criticized Bush's recess appointment of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Last month, however, Obama indicated that he'd consider his own recess appointments for critical jobs where he felt noncontroversial nominees were being help up.
As of Thursday, White House aides said 558 judicial and civilian nominees had been confirmed, but another 208 are pending before the Senate. Of those, 73 have cleared the committee process but await a final vote.
The power for recess appointments derives from Article II, Section 2, clause 3 of the Constitution, which provides for continuity of government when the Senate isn't in session. Recess appointments are in effect only through the end of the Senate's next session. A recess appointee now could stay on the job only through late December 2012, unless the Senate confirms him or her in the meantime.
Paul C. Light, a professor of public service and a governance expert at New York University, said it is "somewhat of a surprise that Obama has waited this long, especially given the frequent use of Senate personal-prerogative holds to delay confirmations. He's right to be frustrated by it all, and government is suffering from the lack of movement on key posts."
At the same time, Light said, recess appointments constrain both the president and the nominee and should be "a last resort."