Reid: We Cannot Leave Without Confirming Nominees

The lame duck session of Congress presents the Senate with an opportunity – and the obligation – to confirm nominees. Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy both discussed the importance of confirming judicial and executive nominations during the lame duck.

Sen. Reid made clear that the Senate cannot leave town for the year without finishing its work of confirming nominees:

[Although] we have been able to get a lot of judges done, we are going to wind up--by the time the Judiciary Committee continues to do the good work they do, we will probably have over 20 judges who need to be approved this Congress. Postcloture, under the rules we have, there is only 1 hour of time that can be used, so we can get through the judges very quickly. For sub-Cabinet officers it takes 8 hours, and we are normally willing to yield back our time, so 4 hours on every one of those.

We have scores--we are approaching, counting judges and all of the nominations, well over 150 who have been held up, people who have been waiting and waiting. These are jobs that are needed in our country; these are not new positions we have created.

So I would hope we can get past the bitterness that has been created in this body and get the nominations done. There is no reason a judge-to-be should have to wait for all this time, as the Senator from Vermont has indicated, just to get a vote. Whatever he is doing now has been put on hold, and this is throughout the whole government.

So I would hope we can get a lot of these done. If not, we are going to have to spend a lot of time here because we cannot leave this Congress with all these things undone. I hope we can work together, as I have indicated. [emphasis supplied]

Sen. Leahy noted that this would be consistent with lame duck sessions in the past:

So let us work together as we have in past lame duck sessions to get these nominees confirmed and serving their communities. In 2002, after the midterm elections, Senate Democrats worked to confirm all 20 of President Bush's judicial nominees pending on the Executive Calendar all but one by voice vote. In the 2006 lame duck session, after Senate Democrats won the majority in the elections, Democrats agreed to confirm all 14 of President Bush's judicial nominations pending on the Executive Calendar, but this package was blocked by a Republican Senator. In the most recent lame duck sessions, in 2010 and 2012, a total of 32 judicial nominees were confirmed. We should do the same now.

There is simply no legitimate reason not to hold confirmation votes on so many nominees who have been fully vetted and approved in committee. We need a government that functions, and we cannot have that if vital judicial and executive positions are left unfilled. America can do better than that.

PFAW

Second day of Senate debate to #GetMoneyOut

When Senators returned to the floor on Tuesday for the second day of debate on the Democracy for All amendment, supporters continued to build a strong case for getting money out of politics, while the opposition ramped up its hyperbole.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah would have us believe that the amendment is an un-American attack on "outside intruders" like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That is who the authors of this amendment believe are outside intruders whose speech somehow needs to be regulated, needs to be restricted by Congress—people with ideas that are ‘‘unreasonable,’’ people such as Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas proclaimed:

I guarantee there is no one in this country who truly believes money is not speech. It is a talking point[.]

Well, Senator, sixteen states and more than 550 counties, cities, and towns have called for an amendment, including many seeking to establish that money is not speech.

Senator John Thune of South Dakota:

It is no wonder a George Washington University Battleground poll found that 70 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

That may be true, but Americans also think that we need an amendment like Democracy for All.

One option we tested is a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Voters support such an amendment by an overwhelming 73 to 24 percent margin, including majorities in even the reddest states.

Other highlights from day two:

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada:

At one time the Republican leader was rooted in the principle that the wealthy shouldn’t be able to buy public office whether for themselves or for others. Even as recently as late in 2007 he was preaching donor disclosure. What has changed in the last few years?

Over the last several years we have witnessed the Koch brothers trying to buy America, to pump untold millions into our democracy, hoping to get a government that would serve their bottom line and make them more money. The news today says they are out promoting themselves, and that is easy to do because they are worth $150 billion.

So we are watching the corrupting influence that the Republican leader foretold 27 years ago and many years thereafter before our very eyes. He switched teams. What could have possibly convinced the senior Senator from Kentucky that limitless, untraceable campaign donations aren’t really that bad after all?

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota:

I find this whole thing incredibly disturbing, this idea that a handful of superwealthy corporate interests in effect can buy our democracy—or in this case one guy. That is not how it is supposed to work. Everyone is supposed to have an equal say in our democracy regardless of his or her wealth. The guy in the assembly line gets as many votes as the CEO—one. You don’t get extra influence just because you have extra money—or you shouldn’t. The government should be responsive to everyone and not just the wealthiest among us.

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon:

This premise is so well-known to citizens that when you say: What are the first three words of our Constitution, they will say, together: ‘‘We the People,’’ because that is what animates our system of government—‘‘We the People.’’ Those who came to argue for the government by and for the powerful are simply trying to destroy our Constitution and our vision of government.

Citizens United, a court case that absolutely ignores the fundamental premises on which our Nation is founded, is a dagger poised at the heart of our democracy. It is a decision by five Justices that this framework doesn’t matter.

Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island:

I believe fixing the campaign finance system through this constitutional amendment will provide a foundation so we can have reasonable debate that is responsive to the interests of the American people and not responsive to the interests of a narrow class of Americans.

Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii:

The vast majority of the American people disagree with the Supreme Court’s unprecedented interpretation of the First Amendment. The Court has left us with the option we are pursuing today—amending the U.S. Constitution. When the Supreme Court said that women did not have the right to vote, Congress and the people passed the 19th Amendment. So amending the Constitution to protect our democracy is not some new or radical idea. When the Supreme Court said States could impose poll taxes on the poor, Congress and the people passed the 24th Amendment, and the list goes on. Why? Because the Supreme Court is made up of human beings, and as human beings they sometimes get it wrong, as they did in the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions.

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, lead sponsor of the Democracy for All amendment:

This debate is crucial. This debate is absolutely crucial to the future of our country, and I believe the American people are not only listening, they are demanding to be heard, because every voice counts, and that is why the majority of Americans support reform. They know the system is broken.

Senator John Walsh of Montana:

Passing this amendment is vital if we are going to begin to roll back the coercive influence of money in our democracy. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, political power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of corporations and modern-day copper kings. In fact, less than 1 percent of Americans provide over two-thirds of the money spent on elections. The voices of everyday Americans are simply being silenced.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island:

Frankly, I have great reverence for the First Amendment, and I think it is extremely unfortunate that an argument would be made that is really nothing more than a rhetorical trick and does not respond to the gravamen of the dispute, which is whether the First Amendment should protect unlimited corporate spending when in the history of this country—until the decision by Citizens United—it never had.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio:

To restore voters’ faith in the political system, to ensure voters that their voices are being heard, one man, one woman, one American, one vote, that is what we stand for. Those are our values. That is why this is an important issue.

You can find these passages and more from Tuesday's debate here.

Follow @peoplefor and check out our blog for more coverage of Democracy for All.

PFAW

First day of Senate debate to #GetMoneyOut

Monday marked the first day of Senate debate on the Democracy for All amendment. Not only did it clear an important procedural hurdle, but we heard from many strong champions of getting money out and voters in, and from those who, contrary to the views of three fourths of the American public, are satisfied with the democratic imbalance created by Citizens United and related cases.

Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa each claimed to know what this debate is really all about.

Senator Cornyn:

In reality what this amendment would do would be to undermine some of our most cherished, most fundamental, and most important liberties.

Senator Roberts:

They want to silence their opponents. The First Amendment does not allow them to do so, so they are going to try and change it.

Senator Grassley:

The amendment being proposed would put those who would engage in political speech on notice that they may be prosecuted for being active citizens in our democracy.

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois was there to set the record straight, about the true reality of this debate, and about the seriousness with which Democracy for All supporters have approached this historic step forward in the movement to take back our democracy from powerful corporations and billionaires.

Senator Durbin:

Six constitutional amendments, landmark civil rights legislation, and Supreme Court decisions helped make the promise of one person and one vote a reality. We must, in our time, in our generation, be constantly vigilant against threats to these victories which were won through the blood, sweat, tears, and even the lives of many Americans. That is why we are engaged in this debate today, because the right to vote is under siege. It is in peril. A well-funded, coordinated effort has made it harder for millions of Americans to vote and at the same time unleashed a tidal wave of special interest and corporate money into elections to drown out the voices of average Americans . . . During his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court said this of the right to vote. It was ‘‘the right preservative of all other rights.’’ And he pledged to be a neutral umpire, calling balls and strikes when it came to issues such as the right to vote. But because of the judicial activism of Chief Justice Roberts and his four conservative allies, the right to vote of average Americans is now at greater risk than any time since the Jim Crow era.

Other highlights from day one:

Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada:

If spending is speech, where does that leave the rest of the American people? Should their role in democracy be diminished because they are paying a mortgage and sending kids to college? Should a family hard hit by a recession— let’s say they are out of work— does that mean they shouldn’t have any say at the ballot box? Should families hard hit by the recession take a back seat in our government to a couple of billionaires? Right now the answer is yes.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont:

The Court’s radical reinterpretation of the First Amendment contradicts the principles of freedom, equality, and self-government upon which this Nation was founded. The consequence of the Court’s opinions is that a small, tiny minority of very wealthy individuals and special interests are drowning out the voices of hard-working Americans and skewing our electoral process. What they are saying is: I have millions of dollars. I have a voice in elections. You? You are just an average hard-working man or woman, and you do not have any voice.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts:

This is an extraordinary situation. The Supreme Court overturned a century of precedent, voiding campaign finance restrictions passed by Congress and making it far easier for millionaires, billionaires, and big corporations to flood our elections with massive amounts of money. The Supreme Court is helping them buy elections . . . This is the time to amend the Constitution. I urge my colleagues to support this effort. We were not sent to Congress to run this country for a handful of wealthy individuals and powerful corporations. We were sent here to do our best to make this country work for all our people.

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, lead sponsor of the Democracy for All amendment:

Folks want Congress to get to work and work together so we can find real solutions to real problems and spend our time raising hopes instead of raising cash. That is why Senator Bennet and I have introduced our constitutional amendment and that is what I wish to talk about today.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont:

People do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns for fun, for the hell of it; they are spending money because they have an agenda. And the billionaire agenda is not the agenda of the American people . . . I am not saying every Republican adheres to every aspect of this agenda, but [the Koch brothers] are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process for a reason, and that reason is to make the wealthiest people in this country even wealthier while they do away with all legislation that protects working families.

You can find these passages and more from Monday's debate here.

Follow @peoplefor and check out our blog for more coverage of Democracy for All.

PFAW

Great Progress in Judicial Nominations

During the past several months, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy have clearly made judicial nominations a priority. Taking advantage of last year's rules change and standing up against GOP filibusters of every judicial nominee without exception, Senate Democrats have made great strides in addressing the vacancy crisis.

So far in 2014, the Senate has confirmed 50 federal circuit and district court judges. That's more than were confirmed during all of last year, or during the year before. With the Senate finally able to do its job, the number of current vacancies has gone down from 92 at the beginning of the year to 60 today. The number of current vacancies is lower than it has been since the earliest weeks of the Obama Administration, when the GOP began its mission of obstructing his judicial nominees.

None of this is because Republicans have suddenly ended their obstruction. Far from it: They have not consented to a single one of this year's confirmation votes. Of course, once their filibusters are beaten back, they usually vote to confirm the nominee overwhelmingly.

Next to be confirmed are a diverse group of 16 pending nominees fully vetted by the Judiciary Committee (11 of them voted out just this morning). Of these 16 nominees, 11 are women or people of color. They would add to the experiential and professional diversity on the bench, as well. For instance, Florida's Beth Bloom and Paul Byron, Georgia's Leigh Martin May, and Louisiana's John deGravelles have private practice experience representing injured plaintiffs; Missouri's Ronnie White and California's André Birotte bring experience as public defenders; Florida's Carlos Mendoza and Paul Byron served in the military as criminal defense lawyers in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, respectively.

There is no reason not to have confirmation votes for all 16 of them before the long summer recess. If that happens, then the total number of current vacancies will drop into the 40s for the first time since before George W. Bush left office.

Every American has the right to protect their legal rights in a court of law, but judicial vacancies make that harder. Harry Reid, Patrick Leahy, and the Democrats are to be commended for making judicial confirmations such a high priority.

PFAW

People For the American Way's Marge Baker Stands With Congressional Leaders To Call For Amending the Constitution To Overturn Citizens United

This Tuesday at a press conference in the US Capitol hosted by Brave New Films and featuring Robert Greenwald’s latest documentary, “Koch Bros Exposed,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders and People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker made a resounding call for amending the Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s egregious decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC.

“We need our voices heard… we need to change the status quo,” Majority Leader Reid stated after calling for an amendment.

“We need a government by the many, not a government by the money,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed. She went on to declare, “the time to amend the Constitution is now!”

Comparing the amount the Koch brothers spent in the 2012 election cycle to the amount they made, on average, over the past three years, Sen. Sanders pointed out: “$400 million is not a lot of money when you make $11 billion a year.”

Following Sen. Sanders, People For the American Way’s Executive Vice President for Policy and Program, Marge Baker, took the podium and stated, “The time has come to discuss solutions.”  She highlighted the growing support for the amendment strategy, the momentum behind the small donor empowering Government By the People Act, the push at the state level for disclosure and campaign finance law, and the growing movement around the country of everyday citizens who are working to build a more democratic government.

 

PFAW

Obstruction 2.0: How Republican Senators Continue to Block Judicial Nominations Post-“Filibuster Reform”

Tuesday afternoon, PFAW hosted a special member telebriefing on the continued GOP obstruction of judicial nominees. The briefing featured PFAW’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon. They discussed how Republicans’ obstruction has reached staggering levels, despite changes in Senate filibuster rules.

Marge gave a brief background on the issue of GOP obstruction of judicial nominations, explaining how important federal judgeships are for deciding many issues that affect everyday Americans and defining why Republicans are determined to continue obstruction confirmations of judicial nominees. Their underlying goal is to keep as many seats empty as possible so a President Cruz or Rubio can fill them with right-wing ideologues.

She addressed the current narrative that President Obama has had more confirmations at this time than Bush had, and explained that these numbers need to be put in the context of the fact that Obama has had around 70 more vacancies to fill than his predecessor. That means for Obama’s confirmation results to be seen as equivalent to those of President Bush, he would have had to have many more nominees confirmed at this point in his presidency.

Paul began a discussion of some of the choke methods Republicans are employing to block the confirmation of President Obama's nominees to the bench. Paul delineated how all too often, GOP senators do not cooperate with the White House to suggest candidates for nomination, delaying the process from the very beginning. Once nominees are made and are sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, we have seen GOP Senators delay the hearing by not submitting their blue slips, an unofficial tradition that gives home state Senators an opportunity to express their support for the nominee.

Marge explained ways in which Republicans are delaying the process once nominees are in committee, where the minority is allowed to request one-week delays. To express the magnitude of the obstruction, Marge explained how of the 270 nominees who have had a vote during President Obama's term, only 11 have had their votes held on time.

Once on the Senate floor, the situation doesn't get better as senators are able to filibuster nominees by refusing to give unanimous consent to the simple act of holding a yes-or-no confirmation vote. To offset these delays, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been forced to file for cloture. Since the rules change in November, there have been cloture votes on all the nominees, adding hours of senate time in post-cloture debates (30 hours per circuit court nominee).

Marge highlighted that if all 30 nominees on the floor were voted on today, which is possible, then the number of current vacancies would drop precipitously, down to the level at this point in George W. Bush’s presidency. It is essential that these be voted on now, and that confirmation votes for nominations coming out of committee be voted on expeditiously.

Fielding questions from PFAW members, Marge and Paul discussed particular cases of obstruction like that of William Thomas's nomination in Florida, where Senator Marco Rubio withheld his blue slip in support of the nominee-–one that he himself had recommended in the first place. Members also made the connection between the effect of big money in politics and the motivations for GOP senators to obstruct confirmations, and attempted to find ways in which everyday Americans can make their voices heard to their senators regarding the issues of obstruction in judicial nominations. Paul used the example of the DC Circuit Court fight, where with the activism from people across the country rallying together helped get all the court's vacancies filled.

Marge and Paul, along with PFAW members, emphasized how as activists, we can intervene in the fight to take back our democracy by letting Senators know that average Americans are paying attention, watching how they respond and vote on judicial nominations, and considering who may be pulling their strings. For instance, a caller in Florida wanting to influence Marco Rubio could call his office and ask him to prevent a delay in a committee vote for nominees to fill four emergency vacancies. And everyone, regardless of whether there are vacancies in their state, can call their senators and call for the quick confirmation of the large number of nominees awaiting a floor vote. She also highlighted what is at stake in this mid-term election since the officials we elect today will help confirm the judges that will decide important cases that affect average Americans. For this reason, it is important to have demographic and experiential diversity in the courts so judges making decisions understand the impact of the law on regular Americans.

Click here more information on our Fair and Just Courts campaign.

PFAW

Harry Reid Moving Judicial Nominations Forward, Despite Republican Obstruction

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed cloture yesterday on the nomination of John B. Owens to a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—one that has been declared a judicial emergency and which has been vacant for almost 10 years. This moves forward the Senate judicial confirmations process that has been relentlessly slowed down by GOP obstruction. In an atmosphere of constant delays, it is commendable that Sen. Reid is taking action to get nominees confirmed, especially circuit court nominees.

Because of obstruction by Senate Republicans, nominations for the circuit court have been made particularly cumbersome. As we explained last month, if Senators refuse to provide “unanimous consent” to schedule a vote, Sen. Reid is forced to file a cloture petition to allow a yes or no vote on the nominee. Once cloture is invoked,  Senate rules allow the minority to insist on “post-cloture debate”— up to 30 hours for circuit court nominees.

With six circuit court nominees now on the Senate calendar, (including the most recent addition, Fifth Circuit nominee Gregg Costa, who was recommended unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning) and more in the pipeline, Republicans can tie the Senate up for 180 hours of needless “post cloture debate” – that is weeks of floor time that could be spent doing something useful. Time is growing short to get them all confirmed by the end of the year. One easy answer is for Senate Republicans to forego their delaying tactics and permit the Senate to both confirm judicial nominees and perform the other important work waiting to be done. Until that happens, Sen. Reid should be applauded for pushing the process forward.

PFAW

Senate to Hold Cloture Votes on TN and AR Judicial Nominees

Early this week, the Senate is scheduled to hold cloture votes on four judicial nominees, including Timothy Brooks, nominee for the Western District of Arkansas and Pamela Reeves, nominee for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Brooks and Reeves have been waiting for confirmation votes on the Senate floor since October 31 and November 14, respectively.

As we noted earlier this month, Republicans are routinely delaying nominations on the Senate floor by requiring Democrats to invoke cloture on every single judicial nominee and then piling on hours of unneeded “post-cloture debate” for each nominee who is called up for a vote. This practice creates a weeks-long backlog of nominees awaiting votes and prevents the Senate from moving on to other business. Nominees like Brooks and Reeves could have been confirmed within minutes after they were sent to the Senate floor last year. Instead, both of these nominations were sent back to the  president in early January at the end of the first session of the 113th Congress to be re-nominated. After further needless delays in Committee, the nominees were finally placed on the Senate calendar only to wait an additional two months for consideration.

After the Senate has finally worked through the backlog of nominees to get to the Arkansas and Tennessee vacancies, Republicans are throwing up additional roadblocks, forcing Senator Reid to file cloture petitions, which will further delay their consideration. These nonsensical delays of well qualified nominees undermine the public’s faith in the Senate and create hardship for those seeking justice in the courts.

PFAW

Reid Calls Out Republicans on Obstruction of Judicial Nominees

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) responded to Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) absurd claim that this Congress has done well in confirming judicial nominees. In fact, Republicans have not consented to even one judicial confirmation vote since November. The few votes that have been held since then have been over GOP filibusters. Unfortunately, Senate rules allow them to demand hours of needless “post cloture debate” after every cloture vote, so it could take weeks and weeks of Senate floor time to get through all the nominees waiting for a simple yes-or-no vote.

Reid was quick to voice that the confirmation process has been unnecessarily delayed by GOP obstruction:

Everyone knows that we are in this situation because of Republicans slow-walking every nomination—every nomination. There is no reason, no reason whatsoever that we are having votes on cloture on these judges.

“It is a waste of the taxpayers’ time to go through the process we’ve been going through.

Reid, aware of the prolonged time they will spend clearing the backlog due to these procedural delays, promised that they will get through filing cloture on all of the nominees.

If that’s what the Republicans want us to do, then that’s what we’ll do. The American people will see this colossal waste of time that we’ve been going through.

PFAW