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U.S. Senate steered by the power of the hold

WASHINGTON — George LeMieux has been a member of the U.S. Senate only two months but has managed to jam up legislation on oil drilling, a bill cutting funding for Radio Marti and President Barack Obama's nominee for ambassador to Brazil.

But what may seem remarkably effective from afar is merely a reflection of a grand tradition in the Senate: the hold.

You won't find a description in the rule books, but a "hold" is one of the most powerful, many say abused, weapons available to the 100 men and women who make up the Senate — even to a neophyte like LeMieux, who was never elected and is serving on a temporary basis.

"It's the power of one," LeMieux says.

Because the Senate works by unanimous consent, a lone lawmaker can block a bill or nomination from reaching the floor by notifying party leaders. Holds can be ignored by leaders or broken with 60 votes, but that rarely happens in this clubby institution.

Sometimes holds are done in secret or with little fanfare, hence the nickname "silent filibuster." Other times lawmakers publicize them to settle a score or in search of a bargaining chip or a headline.

Either way, it's difficult to know how many exist at any given time. But the decades-old practice is increasingly common, helping turn the Senate into a slow-moving beast.

The House has no such privilege. It would take years for a representative to attain a similar degree of authority over the process.

Defenders, both Democrat and Republican, say holds are at the heart of a cautious and reasoned body. "It's the perfect process. The Senate is not a place that just rushes things through," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has served more than three decades.

• • •

LeMieux has wasted no time seizing the opportunity, drawing stares.

"Every senator has a right to stop something," the 40-year-old Republican said. "I'm using that power as I see for the best interest for Florida."

Minutes after he was sworn in as Gov. Charlie Crist's pick to fill out the final 16 months of retired Sen. Mel Martinez's term, LeMieux announced he would put a hold on an energy bill that would open oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

It sounded like he was adopting the traditional antidrilling stance espoused by Florida's congressional delegation, but the prodrilling LeMieux later said he wants to ensure any plan gives Florida its share of revenue.

In that sense, he employed the "Mae West hold," meaning he wants the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, to "come up and see me sometime" and address concerns.

There is also the "rolling hold," where one senator picks up the objection for another; the "tit-for-tat" hold, which is retaliatory and the "choke hold," which is intended to kill a bill or nomination.

• • •

LeMieux's oil drilling effort is more show than teeth. Bingaman is part of the Democratic leadership, as chairman of the energy and natural resources committee, so don't look for him to genuflect to LeMieux. Moreover, the legislation could get rolled into other energy bills moving through the Senate.

LeMieux followed that up with a hold on a bill that would reduce funding to TV and Radio Marti, which broadcast prodemocracy messages to Cuba. Critics question the effectiveness and hold the programs up as examples of government waste.

Two weeks ago, LeMieux appeared to be courting the anti-Cuba contingent again (and ingratiating himself with South Florida power brokers) by putting a hold on Obama's nomination of Thomas Shannon as U.S. ambassador to Brazil. Shannon was previously assistant secretary of state for western hemispheric affairs and some have criticized him for an open posture toward Cuba.

"Kind of sad when you see a freshman U.S. senator get appointed and immediately hijacked by lobbying groups who have deeply parochial interests," wrote Steve Clemons, a foreign policy expert who publishes a widely-read political blog, The Washington Note.

LeMieux, who placed the hold right after South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint dropped his own, said he acted after hearing concerns from "a number of my constituents." His office acknowledged that the lobbying group U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC was among those pressing the issue.

But last week, nine former assistant secretaries of state sent LeMieux a letter urging him to give up. "This continuing, prolonged vacancy sends an unintended signal that the United States does not consider Brazil an important relationship,'' they wrote. One suggested the delay could hurt U.S.-based Boeing's bid to sell Brazil $7.5 billion in fighter jets.

LeMieux said he is waiting for Shannon to reply to a series of written questions before deciding whether to lift the hold.

• • •

Critics say holds have gotten out of control and have plenty of examples to cite. In 2003, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, blocked hundreds of Air Force promotions in order to get four C-130 cargo planes for his state's Air National Guard.

The nomination process is fertile ground for holds. Opposing political parties commonly block a president's judicial nominees but the tactic is used in many areas. Earlier this year, Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter blocked the nomination of Florida Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate to head up the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Vitter wanted to resolve a beef with FEMA, widely criticized in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Fugate was eventually confirmed.

And this week, after fierce backlash, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., lifted a hold on a bill expanding veterans' health care benefits after getting a guarantee he could amend the legislation to his liking.

"It's diverged far from the original gesture of courtesy into an instrument of political guerilla warfare," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "Unless you favor shutting down all business in the Senate, it's hard to see a rationale for the holds."

• • •

Holds have their origins in the creation of the democracy. Founding fathers reasoned that on matters pertaining to a state, home senators were due special deference, said Donald A. Ritchie, historian of the Senate. Holds were commonly used if a senator was away from Washington and wanted to be around for debate.

A big shift came in the 1950s under Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson as he pressed for more unanimous consent agreements.

"He was trying to figure out how to make the Senate more efficient. He realized that when a bill came out of the committee, most of the kinks were ironed out," Ritchie said.

The 1970s brought another evolution "as the Senate changed from the 'communitarian' institution of the 1950s and 1960s — where Senators were expected to serve an apprenticeship, defer to an 'inner club' of seniority leaders and exercise restraint in using rules to gain procedural advantage — to today's individualistic and more partisan Senate," Walter J. Oleszek, a legislative expert with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, wrote in a 2007 report.

There have been numerous attempts over the years to curtail or abolish the process, most of which failed. Some critics called for a time limit on a hold, from 24 hours to two months, but none was adopted. A 2007 ethics bill signed into law by President George W. Bush called for more disclosure but holds still flourish, even furtive ones.

New calls for reform are likely to meet the simple truth: Senators do not want to give up any leverage over the agenda — particularly a newcomer like LeMieux with little time to generate clout.

"This body was built as an institution to bring caution and to give a sober reflection of important issues," LeMieux said, defending the process. "The House, they say, is the gas pedal and we're the brakes."

Alex Leary can be reached at


What are holds?

Holds are an informal custom unrecognized in Senate rules or precedents. They allow senators to give notice to their respective party leader that certain measures or matters should not be brought up on the floor. Implicit in the practice is that a senator will object to taking up a bill or nomination on which he or she has placed a hold.

In general, senators place holds on measures or matters by writing a letter to their party leader requesting a delay in floor consideration of a proposal or nomination. From being a courtesy to keep senators informed about impending action on measures or matters, holds have evolved to become a parliamentary weapon for stalling or obstructing floor decisionmaking.

"There are holds on holds on holds. There are so many holds, it looks like a mud wrestling match," Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said in 1996.

Source: Walter J. Oleszek, Congressional Research Service

U.S. Senate steered by the power of the hold 11/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 21, 2009 10:33pm]
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