WASHINGTON – In a late flurry before leaving for Christmas, the Senate on Thursday confirmed several of President Bush's outstanding executive nominations including the new NASA chief and the administrator for the National Endowments for the Arts.
But in one last jab at the president, Senate Democrats also sent the State Department nomination of Otto Reich back to the White House again.
Confirmed was Michael Hammond as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; Sean O'Keefe as the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; James Newsome as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission; and Kathleen Burton Clarke as director of the Bureau of Land Management.
O'Keefe served as Navy secretary for Bush's father and gained a reputation for his budget cutting when he worked at the Pentagon in the early 1990s under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. He's been the deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget since March.
Hammond, dean of the music school at Rice University in Houston, is a conductor and composer whose interests include the music from Southeast Asia and the Renaissance, as well as medieval music.
Also approved were two U.S. attorneys, Harry Cummins of Arkansas and Christopher James Christie for New Jersey and a U.S. District Court judge, C. Ashley Royal of Georgia.
But Democrats then sent Reich's nomination for the State Department's top position for Western Hemisphere affairs back to the president for the second time this year without approving it.
Senate Democrats, led by Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, refused to hold a confirmation hearing for Reich, whom they consider unqualified. The White House also refused to withdraw his name, saying he is the victim of a smear campaign.
Democrats say Reich is too divisive for his position. His supporters claim he is being targeted for his strident opposition to Cuban leader Fidel Castro. From 1983 to 1986, Reich headed a State Department office that was accused of running a prohibited covert propaganda campaign against Nicaragua's then communist-backed government.
Bush returned the nomination to the Senate after getting it back in August. He would have to resubmit the nomination again in January to get it reconsidered by the Senate.
Several other nominations will languish on the Senate's calendar until Congress comes back next year, including four U.S. District Court nominees. The judicial nominees stuck until next year are Callie V. Granade of Alabama, Marcia S. Krieger of Colorado, James C. Mahan of Nevada and Philip R. Martinez of Texas.
The Senate approved 28 of Bush's 64 judicial nominations this year, or 44 percent of the president's nominees.
"It is not fair to this administration," said Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla. "It is not fair to some of these individuals that have been languishing, waiting to be confirmed and no action is taken."
The Senate also passed a bill increasing the penalty for threatening a federal judge.
Under the bill, the maximum penalty for assaulting a judge or a federal law enforcement official would increase from three to eight years and the penalty for using a weapon during that assault would increase from 10 to 20 years. The bill also provides a 10-year maximum term for mailing a threat to a federal law enforcement official, including a U.S. judge.
The House will have to consider the bill next year.