WASHINGTON – The Senate is by design a cumbersome place to do business. Any one of the 100 senators can gum up the works, and they often do — without uttering a word.
Welcome to the world of the Senate "hold," a first cousin of the better known filibuster. It's where a simple threat by a single stubborn senator to talk ad nauseam — at least until 60 senators declare enough — can bottle up a nomination or popular bill for months. A fax or letter is all that is needed.
"If you walked down any street in the country and asked people what a secret hold was, my guess is they might think it was a hair spray," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "But they wouldn't have much of an idea that it is arguably one of the most powerful tools that an elected official has."
It's so easy that at any given time hundreds of such holds are in effect.
To some, holds are proof the system is broken. Any senator who lodges one can do it anonymously, effectively becoming the secret assassin of a bill or nomination.
"The current use of holds is the most corrosive thing going on in the Senate right now," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the former GOP majority leader. "The attitude around here has become, 'How can we keep anything from happening."'
Lott noted that technically a hold is only a request from a senator to the party leader to be notified when a particular bill comes up. In real terms, "that's the same as shooting it in the head with a bullet," Lott said.
Other senators, however, say holds are useful in forcing negotiations and compromise that, in the end, produce better laws.
"From a leadership standpoint, holds allow you to systematically put people in a room within 24 hours of an objection and at the same time protect that bills don't go flying through here at night," said Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Wyden and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have been on a decade-long fight to make senators who place holds identify themselves. Wyden and Grassley won an 84-13 vote this year to end the practice of secret holds. But the victory came during debate on an ethics bill that has languished and now stands no chance of being enacted.
"If there's a valid purpose to the hold, there's no reason to hide it from the American people," Wyden said.
Holds are effective because so much of the Senate's work is done through unanimous, bipartisan agreements to structure debates or to pass bills. All it takes is for one senator to object to such "unanimous consent" to stall a bill or nominee.
Senators, however, rarely have to troop to the floor to voice their objections. Instead, they notify the party cloakroom that they are lodging a hold and rely on the party leaders to enforce it.
The practice drew public attention last month when Internet bloggers became outraged that a few senators anonymously blocked a bill by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., that would create a Google-like database for tracking government spending on grants and contracts.
Once exposed, Stevens and Byrd quickly dropped their holds, the Senate passed the bill, the House followed suit and it went to President Bush last week.
Most holds are aimed at leveraging changes in a bill rather than stopping it, or winning some other concession. Senators also often use them on presidential nominations to force a change in an agency's policies.
Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., for example, put holds on Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach's confirmation to head the Food and Drug Administration. They sought to force the agency to make a long overdue decision on whether to allow over-the-counter sales of the morning-after emergency contraception pill. Clinton and Murray lifted their holds when the FDA last month approved nonprescription sales of the drug to women age 18 and older.
"They made a decision," Murray said, crediting the hold.
As Congress nears the end of its session, holds proliferate, and dealmaking to get them lifted is rampant.
"At the end of the session, the person who wants to hold something up has far more negotiating value than somebody who wants to move forward," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
In those last days, said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., "everything is on the table all the time."