During the Bush Administration, Texas’ two conservative senators set up a partisan commission which selected finalists to be nominated as U.S. Attorneys and federal judges in their state. Since then, there’s been an election, but Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) thinks he should keep his unilateral authority to veto nominees that aren’t selected by his commission.
Cornyn said . . . “No applicant will go foward who does not go through the screening committee, because I’m not going to return a blue slip on them.” A blue slip is a Senate tradition whereby home-state senators register their approval or disapproval of judicial and and other law-enforcement nominees. To not return a blue slip, or to return a blue slip with a negative mark on it, is a way of signaling to the White House that the senator will object.
But Cornyn’s power to extort the President into naming his preferred nominees ultimately will depend on whether Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) gives Cornyn this power.
When Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) chaired the Judiciary Committee during the Reagan and Bush I Administrations, both allowed senators to block nominees from their home state–but only if both home state senators agreed to veto the nominee by failing to return a blue slip. During the Clinton Administration, then-Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) changed the rules, allowing a single senator to unilaterally veto a nominee. Segregationist Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) used this authority to block every single one of Clinton’s nominees from North Carolina.
Yet when George W. Bush took office, Chairman Hatch decided to change the rules again. During the Bush II era, nominees were moved forward despite objections from both of their home state senators. So for our readers who are keeping track of this at home, the blue slip rules work something like this:
- When Reagan and Bush I were in office, both home state senators had to agree to block a nominee.
- When Clinton was in office, one senator could unilaterally veto a nominee.
- When Bush II was in office, everyone gets confirmed!
Now that President Obama is calling the shots, Cornyn wants to bring back the Clinton rules and restore his veto power over Obama’s nominees, but it frankly isn’t in his power to do so. Under the Clinton rules, when a senator refused to return a blue slip, the consequence was that the nominee doesn’t get a hearing; but Chairman Leahy, not Cornyn, gets to schedule committee hearings.
In other words, Cornyn’s threat gives Leahy an opportunity to show whether he will give President Obama’s nominees exactly the same treatment afforded to President George W. Bush’s nominees, or whether the rules need to change yet again now that a progressive is in the White House.