- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2011

After calling for bipartisanship in his State of the Union address, President Obama chose to send back to the Senate two controversial nominees already blocked once by Republicans.

Mr. Obama last year short-circuited messy confirmation battles for Dr. Donald Berwick, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Craig Becker, a member of the National Labor Relations Board, by using recess appointments to put the men in place while the Senate was out of town. The appointments expire at the end of this year, and the president late on Wednesday renominated both men for a full term — despite the fact they have little chance of getting through now that Republicans have expanded their ranks in the Senate.

Both men have drawn intense criticism from conservatives who paint them as left-wing activists intent on using their authority in the administration to advance their agenda. Dr. Berwick, a former Harvard Medical School professor who now plays a key role in implementing Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul, raised eyebrows with praise of Britain’s nationalized health care system while Mr. Becker, a former union lawyer, supports some labor initiatives vehemently opposed by business.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who sits on committees with jurisdiction over the nominations of Mr. Becker and Dr. Berwick, said the way the president handled the two men has been “a stick in the eye” to senators, who place a high value on the confirmation process.

Mr. Hatch said in the case of Dr. Berwick, the administration wouldn’t send him up to meet with senators and made the recess appointment in order to avoid even going through the normal process.

“It was an insult to the Senate. Now to do this [renomination] later, and expect the Senate to like it is another matter — especially since there are so many difficulties with the nomination and his prior statements,” Mr. Hatch said.

The senator said nothing has changed when it comes to GOP opposition to both men.

“Those two in particular have not been handled well,” he said.

The White House did not respond to questions about Mr. Obama’s decision to resubmit the nominations.

Nominations are a perennially thorny issue, with the president’s party accusing the opposition in Congress of delaying administration picks for key executive branch posts and the federal bench. Republicans similarly accused Democrats of stalling action on President George W. Bush’s nominees in the eight years before Mr. Obama took office.

Citing what he described as GOP obstructionism, Mr. Obama in March 2010 used a recess appointment to install Mr. Becker, a former lawyer for the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, at the NLRB. Republicans and business groups lobbied hard against his nomination, warning that he could shepherd through changes to labor rules that would make it easier to organize even though so-called “card check” legislation has stalled in Congress.

Dr. Berwick’s recess appointment was in some ways more controversial because Senate Democrats never tested the waters by scheduling a confirmation hearing, unlike Mr. Becker, whose nomination made it out of committee but failed to garner enough votes on the floor.

Critics chalked the move up to the administration’s fear of a political show in light of controversial remarks Dr. Berwick made to a trade journal in 2009. In the interview, he praised socialized medicine in Britain and said of the health care debate in the U.S.: “The decision is not whether or not we will ration care — the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open. And right now, we’re doing it blindly.”

Dr. Berwick and Mr. Becker aren’t the only Obama recess appointments that have attracted criticism. In December, the president tapped James Cole, a former independent monitor to AIG, as deputy attorney general. Mr. Cole’s nomination cleared the Senate judiciary panel in July but was held up over concerns that he failed to spot warning signs at the insurance giant during his work as a consultant to AIG between 2005 and 2009; the company was bailed out by the federal government in 2008.

Mr. Obama has made 28 recess appointments so far.

Although the recess-appointment process was designed originally under the Constitution to fill executive branch posts when Congress was in the midst of a lengthy recess, modern presidents have exercised the power even when lawmakers were taking the shortest of breaks.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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