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Shelby: Blocking nominees part of life

By Dana Bash, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
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Senate's secret weapon
  • Sen. Richard Shelby this month put near-blanket hold on most of President Obama's nominees
  • Shelby cited concerns over Pentagon bidding process to replace refueling tanker fleet
  • Shelby says he wanted project to bring jobs and money to home state of Alabama
  • "That's part of the life up here," he says of senators putting nominees on hold, in limbo

Washington (CNN) -- The bidding competition to replace an aging refueling tanker fleet has only reinforced Sen. Richard Shelby's anger at the U.S. Air Force.

Shelby, R-Alabama, wants the fleet made in his home state but said he believes the bidding process for the lucrative project is a sham -- stacked against Northrop Grumman, the company that would build in Alabama.

This month, Shelby protested against the process with a drastic move -- he blocked most of President Obama's nominees to an array of federal agencies that have nothing to do with the issue.

In his first television interview on the subject since then, the lawmaker admitted he put a near-blanket hold on 47 Obama nominees for a simple reason. "Well, I did it to get the attention of the administration," Shelby said.

Did he ever. He made headlines, inspired a satirical segment on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and became a symbol of gridlock.

The Pentagon said the competition for the tanker contract is "as fair as humanly possible."

"Our only goal here is to get our war fighters a new tanker so that they can have the support they need to be successful in their operations and to get the taxpayers the best deal for their money," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

"We don't have a dog in this fight otherwise. We don't care who wins. We want the war fighter and the taxpayer to win. So we want to design a competition that is as fair as possible."

Shelby is remarkably candid about the reasons for his controversial action. At a time when bringing home the bacon makes for some unappetizing politics, he unapologetically explains that he is just trying to put money and jobs into his home state.

"Ultimately, I am a senator from Alabama. I wanted to make sure there was fairness because if there was fairness, the jobs would go there," Shelby said.

He eventually lifted his hold on all but three nominees for senior Air Force positions.

Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, said those vacancies "adversely affect the organization."

"Without these highly qualified professionals, we are not firing on all cylinders," Morrell said.

Shelby admits that issue doesn't really much matter to him. When asked about the qualifications of nominees he held up, Shelby replied, "Oh, I don't have any idea."

He openly concedes he is blocking them for one reason: leverage. "That's part of the life up here," he said.

It is part of life in the Senate. You won't find it in the official rules, but by tradition, any senator can put a hold on any presidential nominee for any reason -- and both parties do it.

President Bush nominated Hans Von Spakovsky for the Federal Election Commission. A Democratic senator held him up over a voting rights issue. That lawmaker: then-Sen. Barack Obama.

"It wasn't that I didn't have the qualifications. It was that he disagreed with me on a substantive issue," Spakovsky said.

Now the president has a different perspective, telling lawmakers during this year's State of the Union address, "Well-qualified public servants shouldn't be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators."

A closer look shows Obama's first-year success with nominees is about the same as his predecessor's.

According to the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, the Senate confirmed 353 of 569 major Obama nominations in 2009, compared with 360 out of 513 during Bush's first year.

Senate historian Don Ritchie calls "the hold" a time-honored tradition. "It makes them powerful individually, and it allows them to stop things they feel need to be adjusted or were wrong to start with," Ritchie said.

That's Sen. Kit Bond's argument for his controversial hold. He said the U.S. General Services Administration is dragging its feet on moving 1,000 federal employees out of a dilapidated Kansas City, Missouri, building.

So Bond, R-Missouri, blocked Martha Johnson for GSA administrator. "I had only one way of getting their attention, and I put a hold on the nomination of Ms. Johnson," Bond said. He said he always thought Johnson would be "fine administrator."

When Senate Democrats finally forced a vote after an eight-month delay, Bond voted for her. When asked how he explains using someone he thinks is qualified to vote for as leverage for an issue she didn't yet control, Bond responded. "Because an unresponsive bureaucracy will not respond to the needs of the people we represent unless you have a means of getting their attention, so that's what I did."

Nominees in limbo may be the epitome of broken government to some, but not senators -- for them, it's a source of power.

Sometimes it's political, sometimes it's parochial, but senators see it as another critical check the legislators have over the executive branch.

"It's not a symbol of broken government," Bond said, "it's how government works."