Last night, Republicans in the Senate blocked a cloture vote for James Cole to become the number 2 man in the Justice Department. Only one Republican, Richard Lugar, voted for cloture. All the others either voted know or stayed away from the chamber, which under the silly supermajority rules is as good as a no vote. Harry Reid voted no merely as a procedural matter to allow him to reconsider the nomination later. Here’s the roll call.

Democrats immediately accused Republicans of threatening our national security:

“In the same week that the men and women of our intelligence community are using fresh evidence to track down al Qaeda, Republicans are blocking us from confirming the man who signs the warrants they need to hunt down terrorists.

“The Deputy Attorney General oversees the Department of Justice National Security Division, and he authorizes critical intelligence and law enforcement efforts to identify and disrupt terrorist plots. It is dangerous for Republicans to hold up a key member of the President’s national security team. This is the first time a nominee for Deputy Attorney General has ever been filibustered, and tonight Republicans made history for all the wrong reasons.

“This is not the time to play partisan games with our nation’s safety. James Cole has broad, bipartisan support from former federal prosecutors, district attorney and criminal defense organizations and high-ranking public officials. He’s qualified for the job, he already performs today and I’m highly disappointed that Republicans have been stalling on this crucial confirmation for nearly a year.”

Now, this rings a little hollow considering that James Cole already holds the position, thanks to a recess appointment. The appointment expires at the end of the year, but that’s almost eight months off. So I’d say the reaction shows how Democrats play politics with national security often just as adroitly as Republicans.

But the bigger implication of this vote is that Senate Democrats are feeling the consequences once again of failing to change the rules of the Senate to stop this mindless obstructionism. The “gentlemen’s agreement,” whereby Republicans agreed not to filibuster motions to proceed in exchange for getting additional amendments in legislation, has broken down completely. The Senate deliberated on a relatively uncontroversial small business bill – which actually did include a filibuster of the motion to proceed – for five weeks, without it passing, after Republicans attempted to attach scores of unrelated amendments to the bill, and Harry Reid tried to put a stop to it with a cloture vote on the final bill, which Republicans unanimously rejected. So with legislation basically non-existent in the Senate, they’ve moved to nominations. Some uncontroversial nominees have moved through, but others are going the James Cole route:

Aides to both parties said the nominating process is still working better than it did in the past Congress. In fact, the pace for approving judges has improved this year following a gentlemen’s agreement between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and a subsequent bipartisan deal to reduce the number of appointments that need Senate confirmation.

But taking nominees hostage is still a popular pastime.

Obama hasn’t even nominated a director for the controversial new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but 44 Republicans sent a pre-emptive missive to the White House on Thursday vowing to block anyone he chooses. Only 41 votes are needed to filibuster a nominee.

Republicans also applied the same tactic last week to a brewing fight over a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board against the Boeing Co.’s plans to open up a non-union airline plant in South Carolina.

Earlier this year, McConnell threatened to block all of Obama’s trade nominations until the president sends to Congress all three pending trade agreements — South Korea, Panama and Colombia.

That threat appears to be bearing fruit. The administration announced last week that it is moving forward on completing all three.

Republicans are whining that “uncontroversial” nominees are ready to move in the Senate, but not the ones that Reid has decided to bring up. But here’s the source of the controversy in the James Cole nomination, almost entirely:

“He called the 9/11 attacks, and I quote, ‘Criminal acts of terrorism against a civilian population,’ ” Burr said, with the implication being that terrorist suspects should be treated as criminals and not enemies in an ongoing war. “Mr. Cole has not rejected or fully explained those comments.”

Yes, the Administration which killed Osama bin Laden had better explain this nominee whose one quote could be construed as an argument for terrorism as a criminal action!

Please. This is just obstruction for the sake of obstruction. And the Senate had the opportunity to end this, and make the chamber functional once and for all. You don’t hear much about that effort anymore.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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